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Gavin Williamson mobile phones ban – ‘wrong priority’ for primaries

What schools really need from the Education Secretary has nothing to do with mobile phones, says the ASCL's Tiffnie Harris

  • Gavin Williamson mobile phones ban – ‘wrong priority’ for primaries

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson once again had his sights set on mobile phones when he launched a review of behaviour in schools earlier this year.

“Mobile phones are not just distracting, but when misused or overused, they can have a damaging effect on a pupil’s mental health and wellbeing. I want to put an end to this, making the school day mobile-free,” he said.

Anybody reading this comment might have concluded that there is some sort of mobile phone free-for-all going on in our schools, a sort of digital Wild West.

Indeed, Mr Williamson’s comments triggered a predictable wave of newspaper headlines and radio and television show debates.

Phones in school

In fact, the reality is rather different from the impression that this gives to the public. Schools, of course, already have robust policies in place on mobile phones.

The Department for Education is perfectly well aware this is the case because it has previously published the findings of a snapshot survey on those policies.

This survey – conducted in 2018 – looked at policies by phase of education. 

It found: “The most common mobile phone policy among primary schools was to allow phones but insist that they are left in a particular place during the school day (65%, compared to significantly lower proportion of 16% of secondary schools).

“In comparison the most common policy among secondary schools was to allow pupils to carry phones but not to use them at all during the school day (46% which is significantly higher than the 1% of primary schools that use this policy).

“Primary schools were also significantly more likely than secondary schools to ban phones on school premises altogether (28% vs. 8%), while secondary schools were significantly more likely than primary schools to allow pupils to carry phones with them and to use them at specified times during the school day (29% vs. 1%).”

What this all suggests is that schools – unsurprisingly – take these decisions according to their context and what works well in their school community.

Trust school leaders

For example, one can see why more primary schools than secondaries ban phones on school premises altogether because primary parents may drop off and collect their children and thus may not need the reassurance of them having a phone.

Equally, this approach will not suit all primaries and some will decide that the best policy for their school is to allow mobile phones to be brought into school, but require them to be left in a particular place.

There is no categorically right or wrong answer to this issue, and there is no one-size-fits-all policy. It is a case of school leaders making a judgement based on their circumstances and implementing a policy which works well for their school community.

In other words, it is an operational matter – the meat and drink of everyday life in our schools – and it doesn’t warrant or need intervention from the Education Secretary.

If the government wants to do more about the negative impacts of mobile phones, its attention would be better focused on their use beyond the school gates.

The actual digital Wild West exists around the content itself – the misuse of social media, the accessibility of online pornography, and the proliferation of other disturbing and hateful content.

Regulate online content

Far more action is needed from the government to police the online environment and from online platforms to put their houses in order.

The big challenge that is presented by mobile phones and online technology in general is the speed with which a digital revolution has taken place in our society at such pace that it has outstripped the ability to regulate or navigate it properly.

There are huge positives from this technology – the wealth of information and resources it provides, and the opportunities for networking and dialogue. However, it also has a well-documented darker side.

Minimising the risks while retaining the positive benefits of mobile phones and the online environment is the matter which really needs more government attention.

And what schools really need from the Education Secretary has nothing to do with mobile phones but with strategic decisions about the huge challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the persistent problem of the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

His priorities should be how to reduce the risk of a disrupted autumn term, coming up with a more ambitious plan for education recovery and how to close that long-standing and obdurate attainment gap. 

This is surely more in children’s interests than fixating on school mobile phone policies.

Tiffnie Harris was a teacher and school leader for almost 25 years before starting her role as specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). She now leads on all aspects of the organisation’s primary membership. Follow the ASCL on Twitter @ASCL_UK

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