Mobile phones in schools: everything in moderation

Pupils should be banned from taking smartphones into school, the minister for school standards in England, Nick Gibb boldly pronounced recently. It is of no surprise that his pronouncement has been met with mixed reactions, with the Education Secretary himself rejecting a blanket ban and abdicating the decision on the use of mobiles in schools to headteachers. Patsy Kane, executive head teacher at the Education and Leadership Trust in Manchester, said Mr Gibb’s plan was “missing the point on just how fantastically useful mobile phones can be for learning” and there has been been considerable debate on this topic. Sarah Hannafin, senior policy advisor for the National Association for Head Teachers believes that banning mobile phones outright “can cause more problems than it solves, driving their use underground and making problems less visible and obvious for schools to tackle”.

Interestingly, pupils in France are now banned from using their phones during school hours, after a new law was passed prohibiting their use. Pupils who are 15 and under are now obliged to either leave their phones at home or have them switched off during the school day. Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said the aim of the law was to help make sure children focused on lessons, socialised better and keep social media out of the school day. The rationale behind Nick Gibbs’ proposition is not dissimilar, believing that young people have too much screen time and in schools this can detract from the purpose of the day.

So, where does this leave us? It was only a month or so ago that we were hit with the headline ‘Screen time not intrinsically bad for children, say doctors’ and yet here we are now with the minister for school standards calling for an all out ban on mobiles in schools. Surely common sense has to prevail and rather than grand headlines, and empty gestures, schools need to be allowed to do what they do best which is educate, and parents need to be guided with a consistent and helpful message about how to help their children navigate the world of technology, something all schools should play a part in.

At a recent open day, I was talking about our approach to mobile phones here at Sydenham High School, pointing out that they have no place during the school day; pupils are here to learn and to interact with each other and the adults they come across. To this end mobile phones are expected to be out of sight and not heard, and therefore not used, unless with express permission from a teacher or if they are in the Sixth Form and in their common room. It was at precisely this point that a parent’s phone went off rather loudly, giving me the perfect cue to explain our rationale for this. Schools play a huge role in educating future generations in the use of technology; to do this we need to be one step ahead, and also need to role model good practice. This means that, as a school with a no hear no see policy on mobile phones, we too need to be mindful of the example we are setting. Coming to school is about learning, interaction, discussion, working collaboratively face to face and ensuring that there are no distractions to the business of the day – education. Our policy does not mean we do not embrace technology or that we are not forward thinking or innovative in our approach to education – far from it. Rather, it means means we have greater control over when and if devices and technology play a part in the day to day education of our girls, be it through the use of i-pads, virtual reality or chromebooks. When our girls are in school, we want them to talk to each other, interact with those around them and to learn that there is a time and place for technology and devices. More importantly, we also want to equip them with the self discipline to manage their devices responsibly and the skills to use them effectively and positively

So like all good things, moderation is key. As Sarah Hannafin says, “schools work to prepare young people for the outside world, giving them the awareness and strategies to responsibly monitor their own screen use and the ability to identify and deal with any negative impacts or problematic content they encounter.” This really can only be achieved if we set the right boundaries in school, as well as the right example. Ultimately, the use of technology has to be responsible and in moderation.

‘Screen time’ is here to stay and a reasonable use of it should be embedded in every child’s upbringing, as well as their education. It is possible to strike a balance.