Facing up to the Problem of Mobile Phones in Schools

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 11 March 2024
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Mobile Phones in Schools

Over recent weeks media outlets have been highlighting the issue of the misuse of mobile phones in schools and the current government response encapsulated in their press release; “Government launches crackdown on mobile phones in schools”.  When faced with new difficulties like this, it is tempting to hark back to an easier, less complicated time and to try to recreate the type of context in schools which we know how to cope with. It seems as if the government are trying to push the problem away instead of facing the fact that in letting mobile phones become a central part of all our lives, we have let a genie out of a bottle which is here to stay.

Headteachers and their staffs have been living with this new reality for some years now and are more realistic about what can be done to minimise the harm that phones in school can cause while acknowledging their undoubted benefits. Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, echoes this sentiment as he warned that blanket bans that are unenforceable will actually make the behaviour crisis worse, not better.

We are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of surrendering to the modern obsession of constantly checking our phones or rudely scrolling and texting while in company. Our worry comes from the fact that the younger generation have gone even further in making mobiles a central feature in their lives and the new social norms and behaviours that flow from that. There is a strong case to argue that schools should play a role in educating pupils in using social media safely and wisely and certainly that schools should intervene and act decisively when bullying arises. The reality with these aspects of phone use is that they mainly happen outside school hours and this makes it difficult for schools to have jurisdiction over them.

Why are mobile phones being banned in schools? (msn.com)

The guidance for schools on prohibiting the use of mobile phones throughout the school day, issued by Gillian Keegan Secretary of State for Education, is based on an impressive range of reports including; Children’s Media Use and Attitudes Report 2023 – Ofcom: the Department for Education  National Behaviour Survey (2023): Online Bullying in England and Wales, Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2020): and the Royal College Paediatrics and Child Health, The Health Impacts of Screen time(2019).

The Secretary of State firmly states the principle that;

“Every school has a duty to create an environment that is calm, safe and free from distraction so all pupils, whatever their background, can learn and thrive and that one of the greatest challenges facing schools is the presence of mobile phones.”

She highlights the reality that by the age of 12, 97% of pupils own a mobile phone and that they pose an unnecessary distraction and can disrupt lessons for a whole class. She stresses that also we must keep pupils safe at school, given the evidence that one in five pupils has experienced bullying online. So, her recommendation is that all schools should prohibit the use of mobile phones throughout the school day – not only during lessons but break and lunchtimes as well.

 The guidance gives details of recent stakeholder engagement where headteachers and leaders reported that; “after removing mobile phones from the school day, the whole culture of the school changes for the better and that the environment becomes safer, protecting pupils not only from the short-term distraction of a notification but also the background noise of their lives outside school.” The report does acknowledge the reality that despite the best efforts of teachers, the misuse of mobile phones in schools remains a daily battle.  This guidance aims to achieve clarity and consistency in delivering this policy, giving headteachers and staff the confidence to act decisively in spite of the inevitable opposition. These proposals are designed to sit alongside the Online Safety Act 2023 which the government argues is already a very robust piece of online safety legislation. Four policy options are offered to schools in terms of how they should take this forward – pupils to leave phones at home with parents; phones handed in by pupils on arrival in school; phones stored in lockers during the school day and pupils keeping phones but strictly forbidden to use them. I know that these or similar approaches are adopted by many or most schools already so they are not offering any new ideas.

Mobile phones in schools - February 2024 (publishing.service.gov.uk)

A reality check to this plan has come from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) confirming this view saying that; “it did not expect the new guidance to have any discernible effect and that most schools already forbid the use of mobile phones during the school day, or allow their use only in limited and stipulated circumstances."

Geoff Barton, ASCL General Secretary, went further and articulated the frustration of school leaders who feel that we have lost count of the number of times that ministers have announced a crackdown on mobile phones in schools. He argues that the government should focus on controlling the online platforms through which children are able to access disturbing content and freely post bullying messages and images.

Schools in England given new guidance on stopping phone use - BBC News

The practical reality is summed up by incoming General Secretary of ASCL, Pepe Di'Iasio, who is head teacher at Wales High School in Rotherham, when he told the Today programme that his school's ban had made a "massive difference", but that phones were still important for children, for example, to be able to contact parents or pay bus fares.

He said he was "not aware of a school which has phones available throughout the day". Currently there are no complete bans on mobile phones in schools in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. While there is lack of consensus about how best to reduce the harm which phone use by young people can cause, there is certainly agreement that social media and tech companies should be better controlled and policed in terms of the content which appears on their platforms.

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This article is correct at 11/03/2024

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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