British children should take a "surfing proficiency test" at the age of 11 to allow them a filter-free ride on the cyberhighway, a leading think tank recommended Tuesday.
The test proposed by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) is intended to educate children in the dangers of communicating with strangers in Internet chatrooms so that filters on classroom computers can be reduced. The test would be a culmination of a week-long course into how to surf safely.
Students who passed the nationwide test would be allowed less restricted access to the Internet than is currently allowed in schools. Present filter packages used to protect children from harmful Internet content have been deemed inappropriate by the report for often blocking reputable educational sites that happen to contain "key" words.
"The proficiency test would enable children to have more freedom in using this marvellous technology, but only when they can demonstrate that they can use it," said Damain Tambini, fellow at IPPR and author of the report.
The left-wing thinktank believes current filters are not allowing children enough freedom on the Net. "It is clear that a lot of filters in their current form are unsatisfactory as they over-block new content. If children are having a frustrating experience of the Internet this could have a long term effect upon their education," explained Tambini.
Child protection experts want filters to remain and argue that the IPPR test must teach children how to deal with the possibility of meeting paedophiles in chatrooms. Currently many of the filters available to schools block access to such rooms.
Chris Thatcher, past president of the National Association of Head Teachers, argues that it is impossible to teach children how to deal with paedophiles and doubts the wholesale removal of filters is the answer. "I don't think you can go from complete filtering at ten-years-old to little or none at 11 -- it's a whole learning process that takes all of a child's educational life."
Leading children's charities such as Childnet International and NCH Action for Children, however, dispute IPPR's criticism of filtering packages. "I'm not aware in practical terms of any serious problems arising in schools from material being off limits. Some instances do occasionally arise, but the software will usually allow those individual sites to be unblocked," said Nigel Williams, director of Childnet International.
John Carr, Internet consultant at NCH Action for Children, agreed a proficiency test should merely underpin good practice. "The report seems to believe that filtering software is bound to block out good material, whereas the real challenge is to get sites to rate their content so that it doesn't get blocked."
Concerns over the dangers of children accessing Internet chatrooms surfaced last Tuesday when Carol Vorderman launched an attack on the government for its apathy in protecting kids online. Tambini acknowledges the risks, but argued that, in a broader context, the Internet should be embraced as a place that is "educational and democratic". He asserted that "chatrooms can be an interesting way of kids developing their digital skills and interacting with others".
The IPPR report is intended to address the issue of Internet regulation that was ignored in the government's Communication White Paper in December. Nobody from government was prepared to comment at press time.
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