Should mobiles be banned in school?

I decided to write a post on this subject following the #SLTchat discussion on Sunday 20th October, ably hosted by Andy Squires.

Mobiles #SLTchat

And these were the questions:

SLTchat q1

SLTchat q2

 

SLTchat q3

 

It was interesting to read how impassioned some contributors became during this chat.  I reflected, reading their posts, that although there was a significant range of opinions and so a fair amount of disagreement, all those who took part in the discussion appeared to be firmly motivated by what they felt was in the best interests of the pupils and staff.  There was little general ‘anti-tech’ feeling, or nostalgia for the days before the mobile device genie was released from the bottle.  Although there was an awareness of how time-consuming it can be to police schools’ mobile phone policies, and follow up on incidents of inappropriate mobile use, it didn’t seem that a significant driver was trying to make things easier for the staff.  Everyone appeared to me to be committed to looking out for the welfare of, and supporting the learning of, children in schools.

I was a head between 2000 and 2010.  Mobiles were becoming increasingly common and popular during that decade, and certainly by the time I left headship I would have been surprised if any pupil in the Senior School didn’t have one, and brought it with them to school.  Many had long journeys at each end of the day and parents wanted their children to be able to contact them on this journey if necessary.  This was a 7-18 school, and I suspect most of the older Junior School pupils had mobiles too.

Because of the journey issue, we accepted that pupils would bring their mobiles with them.  Each pupil in the Senior School had a lockable locker, and we asked that mobiles should be kept locked away through the school day, so that students weren’t tempted to use them, and the phone wasn’t a distraction.  Sixth Form students were allowed to use their phones only in the Sixth Form Common Room.  No one was permitted to use phones in lessons.

We became aware that the likelihood of these mobiles being locked away all day was becoming increasingly remote, as students wanted to have their phones in their possession – in a pocket or a bag.  I’m sure some used them discreetly at break and lunchtime, and occasionally a parent would get in touch to say that ‘my child has let me know that…’ and we would realise that the contact had been made during the school day.  We would respond to the issue but always remind the parent of our ruling, and the reasons behind it, and ask for their support.  Interestingly, I don’t remember any parents ever challenging the rule or suggesting it was unreasonable.

If a pupil was found using a phone, it was confiscated by the member of staff who saw it, and sent to me.  The students had to collect it from me in my office at the end of the day, and if I were out of school one of the deputies returned it.  We reminded each offender of why we had introduced the ruling (I don’t remember any pupil arguing, either!) took the pupil’s name and kept a record.  A second offence in the same term meant a letter was sent home and the phone was kept by the school office until a parent could come to collect it.  This sometimes meant the child lived without it for a few days – something we found was a significant deterrent!

It was necessary, of course, for the phones to be locked away when students were taking exams.  I remember how nervous it seemed to make some of them to be physically separated from their phones and it did strike me that there is something unhealthily like an unbreakable umbilical cord in the relationship between some young people and their phones.  In fact I can think of some adults who seem to suffer from the same syndrome.  The Apple watch wasn’t around at that time, of course.

Since I left headship, the use of mobile devices for teaching and learning has become far more prevalent, and the BYOD movement has been born and well-established.  I visited a school last week and sat in several lessons.  At the end of one Sixth Form IB lesson the teacher said, “Get out your phones and take a photo of what’s on the board so you can put it into your portfolio.”  The students did so with no fuss.  I realise that if I had continued in headship, I would have wanted to reconsider our ‘no phones in lessons’ policy.  I would want to suggest that phones COULD be used in lessons if the teacher concerned wished to use them.  However, I have been in schools where pupils are allowed to use phones anywhere around school at break and lunchtime and I feel much less comfortable about open access meaning that so many are on phones – often clustered round phones in significant numbers – rather than talking to each other, or being involved in the wide range of activities which take place during these sessions, including clubs and societies, music, drama, sport, debating…  This is how I wanted our pupils to be occupied outside lessons, not glued to their mobile devices.

Inevitably, we did deal with issues of anti-social behaviour and bullying where unkind, and even abusive, messages had been sent using technological devices.  We took this very seriously (and, in fact, it was helpful to be able to retrieve messages to use as ‘evidence’ when we were investigating – and to show parents what their children had sent).  I don’t remember specific situations where such messages had actually been transmitted on school premises or on the school bus – but I should imagine that did happen from time to time.  However, I don’t think that allowing mobiles to be used for Teaching and Learning purposes under the supervision of staff would lead to a significant increase in inappropriate use of mobiles.  I would expect the teachers involved to be aware of what was happening in their classrooms.  It should actually be easier to monitor if phones are on the desk (turned off or face down, and certainly on ‘silent’, until they are needed) rather than being surreptitiously used under the desk because phones are not allowed in the classroom.

So I know it is easy for me to talk about what I might do, were I still a head, and I clearly don’t have to deal with the repercussions of whatever policy is decided upon.  I am mindful of this!  But I think I would do things differently were I still working in school.  In their book, ‘What does this look like in the classroom?’ (John Catt, 2017) Robin MacPherson and Carl Hendrick included my responses to a number of questions on behaviour, and one of these questions was: ‘Should mobile phones be banned in classrooms?’

My response included this:

“I know this is a tricky one, but I would say no, not these days.  I think it’s about educating children to make the most positive and constructive use of all technology, not trying to police, restrict and control their use of it.  I would rather have the phone on the desk and in use when it has educational purpose and value, rather than banning and confiscating…”

And I think that is the crux of it, for me.  I’m not dismissive of the safeguarding issues, but mobiles (in fact, any technology) are tools, to be used for good or ill.  I would much rather raise awareness, debate it properly, and seek to educate (children and adults, in fact) about responsible, positive, acceptable use, than ban within an educational setting.  I recognise it is a sensitive and complex issue.  I’m happy to welcome further comment below.  Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: John Berry

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