To ban or not to ban – that is the question!

We have recently taken the step of banning the use of mobile phones by students at the Academy. The line we have taken is that students may have them in their possession, but they should not be in evidence at any time during the school day, including break and lunchtime. It may, however, be the case that students are invited to use them for certain activities in some subjects. For example, in maths lessons, students may use the phone’s calculator facility. So why did we decide to take this step, and what is the current situation nationally? Please do let me know what you think.

Recent research conducted by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics has found that school pupils perform better when mobile phones are banned from use in the classroom.

The research shows that not only does pupil achievement improve as a result of the ban, but also that low-achieving and low-income pupils gain the most. Researchers found that the impact of banning phones for these pupils is equivalent to an additional hour a week in school or to increasing the school year by five days. However, it was also found that banning mobile phones has no obvious impact on the attainment of high-achieving pupils.

At the moment, Head teachers have complete autonomy regarding their mobile phone policy, which has resulted in large differences in timing of the introduction of bans. In the schools that contributed to the research study, none had a ban in place in 2001. By 2007, half had bans in place, and by 2012, 98% did not allow phones on the premises or required them to be handed in at the end of the day.

However, this autonomy may be removed quite soon under government plans whereby a nationwide ban on mobiles could be implemented in schools. Tom Bennett, a teacher and behaviour expert, who was appointed last year as the government’s new ‘behaviour tsar’, has a brief of trying to help teachers improve discipline in our schools.

Mr. Bennett recently said: “Technology is transforming society and even classrooms but all too often we hear of lessons disrupted by the temptation of the smartphone. Learning is hard work and children are all too aware of this. When they have a smartphone in their pocket that offers instant entertainment, they can be easily distracted from their work.”

Mr. Bennett was given an expanded brief just weeks after he said pupils should be kept away from iPads because there are being misused in lessons. He said gadgets were being used to “hurl online insults at each other”. He went on to say “whether it is the use of mobile phones in schools or the attitudes of parents to their child’s behaviour in class, we will now probe deeper into behaviour more generally to ensure no child has to put up with having their education disrupted by poor behaviour.”

Last month, the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, increased the pressure on schools when he called for all head teachers to ban mobile phones from secondary schools. Under the new reforms reforms, schools now risk being marked down for failing to tackle persistent interruptions such as text messaging, receiving calls and surfing the web on their phones.

Referring to his decision to ban mobiles while head of the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, East London, Sir Michael said: “It certainly cut out all that nonsense that you have in schools of these things being brought in and then a mobile phone going off in a lesson. The outrageous behaviour that you occasionally see in all schools is serious, but I think the bigger issue is that low-level disruption which takes place which stops children learning effectively. Teachers and head teachers have got to stamp that out.”

What the current debate has not acknowledged are the benefits of mobile technology within the context of the school and the context of a young person’s learning. There certainly is a link between misuse of phones in school and attainment and behaviour, but there is also strong evidence that when used in the right ways, mobile phones can have a transformative effect on learning. As in all things, getting the balance right is the key.

We took the decision to ban phones at the start of this term and after a short period where a significant number of them were confiscated during the school day, we have now reached a situation where very few indeed are in evidence, and some days, none at all. So either pupils have got the message and accept the arguments, or they are simply getting better at not being caught. I would like to think it’s the former!

However, I am still strongly persuaded that the debate has to remain ongoing at Holbrook. I recently received a letter from a Year 9 pupil who had had his phone confiscated. He had forgotten that his headphones were still in his ears when he entered the school building in the morning – a bit of a giveaway. He was urging me to encourage staff to use common sense when considering confiscation. He was not, however, denying that use of phones in many circumstances in school could be a negative thing.

My response to him is published below. In it, I throw down a challenge to him and his generation, to work with us to produce a strategy for responsible usage. Let’s see what happens!

Dear K…….,

Thank you for your intelligent letter regarding the Academy’s new policy in relation to the use of mobile phones.

This whole issue is pretty controversial at the moment, and all schools are having to make challenging decisions about the stance they should take. Some have banned them entirely and others allow limited use during breaks and lunchtimes, for example.

You may remember that I led an assembly earlier this year on the growing use of mobile phones in school. I said that in many European schools, especially in Scandinavia, mobile phone technologies are actively used in education and to communicate with students.  Other schools allow them to be carried, but say they must never be turned on in school hours. Some (for example, New York schools) ban them entirely. Our stance is somewhere along that spectrum.

Those who support their use in schools argue that mobile phones keep children safer, as it is easier for parents to stay in touch with their children and for children to contact someone in an emergency. Through calls and texts, parents can know where their child is and be reassured that he or she is safe, all the while their children know they are never more than a phone call away from help.

Those who oppose their use argue that all technological platforms have the potential to be abused or act as a negative medium and what is important is that children are taught to use their mobile phones responsibly. They go on to argue that schools should introduce classes that teach children not only how important the devices are to their personal safety, but also how to exploit the advantages of the software. 

Our main concern within the school at the time of introducing the new policy was that too many students were using their phones irresponsibly during school hours. We obviously have no control over how they are used outside school hours. We were of the opinion that so many students were ‘addicted’ to their use that this was getting in the way of important learning. 

You may remember that I quoted some statistics in my assembly. The average person checks their phone 110 times a day (and up to every 6 seconds in the evening) and the average number of times a user checks their phone is nine times an hour and this increases to once every six seconds for ‘highest frequency users’. This means that the average user (student) could be checking their phone and possibly sending text messages 45 times during the timetabled lessons of the day.

However, you are absolutely right in saying that common sense should prevail and that where students make a genuine mistake or are forgetful, then discretion should be used. This is something I will remind staff about. It is significant that fewer and fewer phones are being confiscated, which suggests that a sensible ‘status quo’ is being established.

One thing we should not do as a school is underestimate the power and potential of the technology and that, when used in the right way and in a responsible way, it has the power to transform learning. As with all powerful tools, the key is to use it as a force for good and not for evil.

I have no doubt that our position on the use of phones will need to change, largely because their potential to do good is so strong. There will still need to be rules of engagement, but different rules to those we have now.

There is therefore an opportunity for you and your peers – an opportunity to advise us, the staff on how we can exploit the potential of the technology in the future. My challenge to you, therefore, is to discuss these issues with your peers and propose forming a student advisory group of some kind that could work with us on how we build our future approaches. I would be happy to meet regularly with such a group and to consider its recommendations.

I hope this offers you some food for thought. Let me know if you feel you would like to take up the challenge of creating a new framework for usage in the future!


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