20 February 2024

Take it from a teacher, mobiles have no place in the classroom


There are very few people working in schools today who do not think that mobile phones have a negative impact on many pupils’ mental health and their academic progress. At their most innocuous they are an irritating distraction, a constant pull away from being focused on work; at worst they can be the source of online bullying.

So, you might think that yesterday’s announcement that head teachers will be given clear guidance on how to deal with the tide of mobile phones in playgrounds, classrooms and corridors would be welcome. Well, you’d be correct – up to a point, because there are some very loud voices that claim it serves no purpose whatsoever. So, who is right?

The truth is that all schools already have policies which will make their position on mobile phones clear. These policies often state that they have either banned phones or do not allow them to be used during lessons. For journalist and Chair of the Times Education Commission, Rachel Sylvester, is then follows that any further non-statutory guidance is a ‘gimmick’: for Sylvester it is ‘an easy way to grab a headline without spending any money’. She points out that if 80% of schools have banned phones, then further guidance is repeating what is already known and implemented.

Or is it? Just because a school says it has a policy on something doesn’t mean it’s being consistently enforced (breaking news: children often ignore school rules). As the science teacher and author Adam Boxer posted on X yesterday, ‘saying ‘no phones unless your teacher wants to do a Kahoot (a mobile learning game) is not a ban’. And if a school allows phones to be used at break, or at lunchtime, then they cannot claim that they don’t allow phones in school. That 80% figure could fall to something as low as 60% if you look at nuances like that. Schools may claim they ban phones, but the devil is in the detail. 

Arguments around this issue fall, predictably and depressingly, into ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ camps, with the former saying that schools should ban phones, and the latter saying that this is a non-policy for a non-issue or, as Daniel Kebede, the general secretary of the militant NEU, said, it is a ‘distraction from the main problems facing education’. Odd that Kebede thinks that something so ubiquitous (97% of children have one by the age of 12) and potentially disruptive as mobile technology is a mere ‘distraction’ when many of his members would disagree. Odd, too, that he thinks it is impossible for school leaders to deal with more than one big issue at a time. In contrast the Family Education Trust have welcomed the guidance as a ‘positive move’. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? 

These divisions have damaged debates around education for too long. It should not be the case that if you are in favour of books, reading, writing, conversation, staying safe, not having mobile phones in school, you are a hateful conservative (small or capital c). Equally, being open to the constructive use of technology in teaching and learning should not mark you down as a left wing progressive who has no interest in maintaining high standards. 

If you work in education, and especially schools, you will spend a lot of time listening to people who have lots of advice for teachers and senior leaders, but are not involved in the day-to-day running of schools themselves. This goes for all union leaders, newspaper columnists, consultants…the list goes on. Their views can be interesting, but they should be kept in perspective. We should listen to those who run schools day-to-day, people like the always-sensible Vic Goddard, the executive principal of two schools in Essex. Instead of stoking division, he engages with parents who, often from a misinformed position, allow their children to take phones to schools. Goddard said that ‘we have a generation of parents who weren’t born with phones. We thought that giving children a phone was keeping them safe, when the reality was it was opening them to a world of online harm and pressure’. Parents and teachers have a duty of care to children, and it can be a dereliction of that duty to allow them to decide when they go on TikTok or focus on quadratic equations. 

The government’s guidelines may not be anything new, but if they turn the dial a little, so that more parents and teachers feel they have the authority to challenge the overwhelming tide of digital toxicity that can come into a school through mobile phones, then that is to be welcomed. Slowly, the debate around how safe these devices are is changing, and that has to be a good thing: we are the adults in the room, and we have to act in the best interests of children at all times, even if that means taking away that mobile phone. 

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.