Should we ban mobile phones in schools in England? Experts explain pros and cons of Gavin Williamson’s plan
China Products News >> Should we ban mobile phones in schools in England? Experts explain pros and cons of Gavin Williamson’s plan
There is a genuine intent in the Department for Education to push through an outright ban of phones in schools — but not all headteachers are convinced.
Mobile phones have permeated every aspect of our lives. We use them to message over WhatsApp, send work emails, watch the Euros and scan into venues with the NHS Covid app.
But in England, the Government wants to turn one part of our society into mobile-free enclaves: our schools.
This week, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, launched a consultation on behaviour in schools which will look at “creating mobile phone-free” days.
Conservative ministers have railed against phones in schools for years, but they have always been unwilling to ban them. Instead, the issue has been left to individual headteachers and school chains.
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But this permissive approach now looks set to change — there is a genuine intent in the Department for Education (DfE) to push through an outright ban.
Mr Williamson tells i that excluding phones brings “a range of benefits to both pupils and their teachers”.
“Not only can this measure help students to focus on their education and limit bad behaviour to create a calmer classroom, but it has been proven to significantly boost attainment and can prevent bullying.”
He also argues that it would help children to readjust to being back in school after long periods learning from home. “After such a challenging time with the pandemic, it is important that children are in the classroom and in front of their teachers, fully focused on their education.”
There is some evidence that banning phones improves attainment. A London School of Economics study in 2015 suggested it was equivalent to an extra hour a week in school, or to increasing the school year by five days.
Studies in other countries have not replicated the results, but the DfE will not worry much about that. If excluding phones does increase attainment — even marginally — then the obvious appeal to ministers is that it is a policy which can be introduced virtually for free.
Ministers also think it would improve wellbeing. Separating young people from their devices, they argue, will dampen down social media pressures, online bullying and the problem of children being sent or asked for inappropriate sexual images — something recently highlighted by an Ofsted review of sexual harassment in schools.
Many schools already operate phone bans. Mossbourne Community Academy — a famously strict state school in Hackney, north London — has had one for almost 15 years. Peter Hughes, the chief executive of Mossbourne Federation, which runs the school, tells i the policy has been “extremely successful”. “Banning mobile phone use in school supports our behaviour management expectations and allows our teachers and students to focus on the lesson without disruption,” he says.
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For most schools with bans, the policy does not mean pupils have to leave their device at home. Children are often allowed to have a switched off phone on their person, but if it is seen it is confiscated. This means they can use their phones when going to and from school to contact their parents in case of an emergency or for transport reasons.
A relatively recent convert to phone bans is Lara Péchard, head at St Margaret’s School, an independent co-educational school in Hertfordshire. Having previously taught at two schools which allowed phones, she was “a bit surprised” to find St Margaret’s had a ban when she joined in January 2020. She says the policy has meant the school has fewer behavioural incidents related to phones. It is also “very popular” with parents — so much so that Ms Péchard says she couldn’t change the policy even if she wanted to. A YouGov poll this week found that 77 per cent of Britons supported phones being banned from the school day.
There are, however, plenty of opponents of the idea. Many heads object to the Government telling them what to do, and think a blanket national policy totally unnecessary.
Seamus Murphy, chief executive of Turner Schools — which runs five state schools in Folkestone, Kent, says: “The idea that students are lolling around in classrooms across the country using their mobiles in any way they like is a nonsense. Schools know their pupils best, and heads should be trusted to come up with their own policies.”
There is a widespread view in the education system that the issue is a sideshow, cooked up by Mr Williamson to chase favourable headlines. Many teachers think he has much bigger fish to fry; banning phones will not realistically deliver education catch-up.
But there are also school leaders who make a much more positive case for phones in schools.
Jane Prescott, the head of Portsmouth High School, a private girls’ school, believes they can be a powerful learning tool. “We have just spent months getting these children to use their mobile phones for home learning,” she points out.
At her school, pupils can have phones but they have to be put away unless teachers say they can be used. Phone use is governed by “protocols” and simple “etiquette”. The girls are allowed to look at them to check their timetable for instance, but they are an “absolutely no-go in the dining room”.
Ms Prescott worries that banning phones would actually be counterproductive for pupils’ wellbeing and safeguarding. “I know of other schools that don’t allow them and the children are all in the toilets using them,” she says. When teachers pick up a child who is glued to their phone, there is sometimes an underlying issue which needs resolving. “I don’t want to push phones underground so that students don’t feel they can come to us and say ‘oh I’ve made a bit of an error here’”.
Many school leaders believe that allowing phones in schools — but setting standards around their use — helps teach young people how to use them appropriately. “With mobile phones being part of everyday life, schools have a duty to teach children how to use them responsibly,” Mr Murphy says. “I’m never a great believer in banning, because I don’t think it educates,” adds Ms Prescott.
You can ban phones from schools, but children will be back on them in the evenings and at weekends, she says. “That’s where we want them to be able to control themselves… so they understand what’s acceptable, what’s good use.
“If we say we ban them in schools, at what point do we allow children to have them? My school goes to 18. Are we really going to say that we’re going to send 18-year-olds out into university, the world of work, without us having gone through all the pitfalls of having a phone?”