Jayne Dowle: Time to ban mobile phones from the classroom

Are schools right to ban mobile phones?
Are schools right to ban mobile phones?
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I’M not a great fan of banning things. Especially amongst teenagers and particularly at school. Having been a young person myself, I seem to recall that my immediate reaction was to rebel against the decision if something was declared off limits.

I was always in trouble for wearing eyeliner and rolling up my skirt three inches at the waistband, but the teachers at my 1980s comprehensive seemed to give up the fight after a while. By the time I reached the fifth year, we ended up with no school uniform to speak of and not many exam passes either.

Not so these days.

The chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, has added her voice to that of Culture Secretary Matt Hancock, and is backing headteachers who ban mobile phones from their schools in order to crack down on bad behaviour. And I agree with them. My own two children – Jack has recently left and Lizzie is coming to the end of Year Seven – have had their moments of railing against the iron rule of the formidable teachers at their academy school.

However, they would both agree with one particular point of the behaviour policy; no mobile phones in school. They can take them in their bags, but there they must stay until home-time or sanctions are imposed.

Apparently, according to the Department for Education, 95 per cent of schools do operate some kind of mobile phone restriction. However, the official Government line is not clear. I’d say that headteachers need all the help they can get.

When Jack started, this tough stance was not in place. Students could pull out their mobiles whenever they wanted and frankly, mess about. Imagine being a teacher trying to keep order in a class of 12-year-olds not exactly riveted by the finer points of the periodic table but fascinated by a baboon in a bath tub on YouTube. It’s what’s known as “low-level disruption” and I’d wager that it’s a big factor in so many teachers leaving the profession. I’m sure he was as much an offender as anyone, but Jack would come home and complain that it was impossible to concentrate. I’d hear stories of frustrated teachers storming out of classrooms in tears, and wonder what kind of establishment I’d sent my son to.

Then a new senior management team was put in place. One of the first things they did was to clamp down on mobile phone use in school. Students were allowed to carry them in their bags, but forbidden from getting them out in school.Unbelievably, some parents went into uproar. How would their darling “child” – usually a great hulking creature of 15 – contact them in an emergency?

It was gently pointed out that using a telephone was one of the duties of the school office staff. Should disaster strike, they were well-briefed on how to make contact with home on behalf of students.

I’ve heard further pretty spurious justifications for mobile phones in schools in the face of the hard-line approach supported by Ofsted and the Culture Secretary. One is that they can support students with their learning. Perhaps this is true if you happen to have a classroom full of quiet, applied types who will Google only what the teacher tells them to.

Yes, multi-media, student-driven learning is a lovely idea. But not when Year 10s and 11s are under the relentless cosh of the new GCSEs, which demand rote learning of up to 18 poems and 87 quadratic equations (I made the last bit up). There is little room for any kind of deviation.

I’ve also heard one headteacher, Carolyn Roberts at the Thomas Tallis School, a comprehensive in Greenwich, south-east London, justify her decision to allow pupils their phones during breaks by claiming some kind of higher purpose. She says: “We believe that one of the things you do in schools is give children the skills for adult life – and one of the things adults have to know is how to manage and moderate their mobile phone use.”

I would say that this is one lesson best learned outside the classroom, or the playground for that matter. I wonder how she deals with instances of social media bullying in her school. Stamp out phones and you cut down on those who stand in a venomous playground huddle, sending reprehensible messages and images to their victim.

And headteachers like Ms Roberts might be interested to learn that a study by the London School of Economics discovered that banning phones had the effect of giving pupils an extra week’s education over the course of an academic year. Researchers looked at schools in Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester and London, and found that test scores increased by more than six per cent in those which banned phones.

Who would deny their child the chance of education at the expense of unfettered access to Instagram? I think any sensible parent and certainly most teachers would concur that this is one ban we should all agree on.