Phone ban in schools – Is a government ban the answer?
Gareth Sturdy weighs up the government’s decision to try and enact a blanket ban on smartphones in schools…
“The distraction, the disruption, the bullying…”. That was the grave lamentation with which Education Secretary Gillian Keegan set the tone for her blanket phone ban in schools at the 2023 Conservative Party conference.
She painted a picture of schools virtually overwhelmed by pupils clutching phones, struggling to cope with their wholly negative impact.
Only a government-level blanket phone ban in schools could match the scale of the mounting crisis, she suggested. Such a ban would represent ‘support’ for heads, whom Keegan promised to back to the hilt. The implication was that school leaders are keen to ban phones but are powerless to do so in the face of… what?
The quiet bit was that this resistance is presumed to come from feckless parents and their kids, who are so addicted to phones that they’re prepared to fight schools for their right to Snapchat.
Those pointing out that this phone ban in schools amounted to non-statutory DfE guidance, which schools would be entirely free to ignore, tended to miss the stick concealed behind the carrot.
If an insufficient number of heads are suitably grateful for such state ‘support’ and decline the opportunity to enact Keegan’s kindly ‘guidance’, then legislation will surely follow.
Straw man argument
Consequently, it’s been hard to accept such a self-contradictory declaration at face value. Most commentators have opted to treat it as yet another lame bandwagon leap by a struggling government desperate for positive pre-election headlines.
However, this fails to recognise the peril this issue presents. Not one concerning the threats lurking within smartphones themselves, but rather with the creation of a dangerous new social climate. One that we’re at risk of sleepwalking into, unless we’re willing to have a mature public debate.
I asked one leading schools adviser what he made of Keegan’s announcement. He told me that teachers’ threats to confiscate phones until the end of the day are of little deterrence. In many schools, pupils flatly refuse to hand their phones over when challenged.
He went on to note that staff are often unwilling to provoke high-stakes confrontations in such situations. Sometimes they don’t feel supported by their SLT. He thought a government phone ban in schools might therefore give school leaders more confidence.
Other pro-ban educators have presented the issue as a matter of hard science. They’ve circulated academic papers in support of their position.
One of them is a 2016 paper by Beland and Murphy, ‘Ill Communication: Technology, distraction & student performance’, which claims that mobile bans improve test scores “by 6.41% of a standard deviation.”
This, however, is a straw man argument. Nobody on either side of the school gate needs researchers to tell them that it’s not desirable for children to be Candy Crushing when they should be calculating during a maths lesson.
Data gathered by Teacher Tapp indicates that leaders have increasingly adopted phone bans in schools over the last five years. Around 80% of schools now have them. This is without the state compelling them to do so.
No, the lobbying and activism for mobile phone bans isn’t simply about providing better learning environments. It speaks to something else. Note this further claim from the Beland and Murphy paper:
“Low-achieving students have lower levels of self-control and are more likely to be distracted by the presence of mobile phones.”
No prizes for guessing to which end of the economic spectrum attention they’re tacitly drawing attention to here.
We could also consider other research conducted by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University, later popularised by the influential teaching guru, Doug Lemov.
In his view, the research showed that mobile phones are responsible for increases in rates of youth depression, anxiety, and isolation.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has also recently tweeted University of British Columbia research from last year with similar findings, concluding that, “To reduce loneliness among adolescents, get phones out of school now.”
Inspired by these research examples, the parental lobbying group UsForThem is pressing for a total ban on phones for all under 16s. This is as part of its #SafeScreensForTeens campaign.
It wants to see a stringent, tobacco-style regulatory regime applied to all digital devices. Katharine Birbalsingh – former social mobility tsar and headteacher at Michaela Community school – has endorsed the campagin.
This schools give families the option to have pupils’ phones locked in a school safe for weeks or months at a time. This is part of a ‘digital detox’ programme.
State-sponsored phone bans are unlikely to empower teachers, produce better cognitive outcomes or improve student wellbeing. Why? Because they’re the locus of diffuse cultural insecurities around authority and childhood vulnerability.
‘Pied piper’ tech.
Supposed grown-ups are feeling less and less in charge. This is to the point where many don’t feel capable of demanding that truculent pupils hand over their phones.
But instead of drawing on our own inner resources to rise to the challenge, it’s easier to project these fears outwards onto digital media.
If we feel we’re losing connection with our kids, it can be more palatable to apportion blame to ‘Pied Piper’ technologies luring away our ‘screenagers’. This is instead of taking a long, hard look at our own moral resources.
Focusing on technology as being the main problem behind the socialisation and education issues young people are experiencing only serves to encourage technical, behaviourist solutions.
Encouraging freedom through the cultivation of individual agency is demoted, in favour of promoting conformity through coerced behaviour.
As the government seeks to impose smartphone bans in schools, we see it adopting a similar strategy aimed at wider society through the Online Safety Bill, which was recently passed by Parliament.
In both cases, the modus operandi is the same. It’s about illiberal, restrictive and authoritarian measures becoming habituated in the name of protecting vulnerable youth from the corruptions of technology.
Pointing the finger
To push back against this trend isn’t to deny ‘The distraction, the disruption, the bullying’ which can surround smartphones. Or to deny the threats posed to young people by online pornography, suicide forums or svengalis like Andrew Tate.
It does, however, recognise that smartphones can be just as much a wonderfully liberating tool for education. That to a parent, their child’s mobile phone provides a valuable reassurance of safety and a tool for co-ordinating family life.
Phones can aid literacy, creativity, learning and social interaction as much as they can hinder them. This is especially true for the one in 20 children who Ofcom says have no other access to digital technology.
To what extent this is allowed to intrude into the school day is a matter of negotiation between parents and schools, with good faith assumed on both sides.
The state shouldn’t encroach. Several government consultations held on the subject in recent years all came to the same conclusion.
Those encouraging government bans, statutory or not, in the hopes of protecting kids or empowering heads are ultimately mistaken. Draconian edicts handed down by the state can’t engender self-assurance any more than an overbearing parent can.
If they implicitly point the finger at families – especially working class families – they will only sow discord in situations where parental buy-in is vital.
As former headteacher David Perks tweeted in response to the news of Gillian Keegan’s ban, “Why welcome the state imposing restrictions and controls on us? Don’t you remember lockdown? Why invite it now? You will regret this later.”
Gareth Sturdy (@stickyphysics) is a former teacher now working in edtech.