Should children be banned from using mobile phones in the classroom?

Anne Longfield
Children’s Commissioner for England

Many have seen the debate framed by France’s decision to ban mobile phones in schools from September this year. The fact is schools here are unlikely to respond well to an edict from on high, nor does the question have to be about mobile phones, but specifically smartphones. There is a pretty persuasive argument for urging all schools to go smartphone-free. I have never argued the internet is a bad thing, it’s a fabulous resource for children but the fact is that it wasn’t designed with them in mind, and overuse or misuse of it does present some clear problems for children.

Do I want to ban smartphones for children? Absolutely not. This is not about banning, but about reducing the amount of time given to it, especially when they are in school. Can they learn about digital citizenship and emotional resilience in school? Absolutely. That doesn’t require a smartphone in every hand. Many schools are already doing this as they see the benefits and have simply created their own policy that delivers the same effect. I think heads can be persuaded that such policies would fit and benefit all schools.

Carolyn Roberts
Head, Thomas Tallis School, Blackheath, south London

I wonder if there’s a school anywhere that allows unfettered access to phones all day every day? I don’t impose a blanket ban, but we do have rules. Our 1,900 11- to 18-year-olds may have their phones with them, but they have to be on silent and out of the way. They can use them at breaks. If they become a problem, they’re confiscated. We want to teach them self-moderating behaviour and how to live with a phone without it dominating their lives. They all still manage to have exciting friendships with a lot of talking!

Schools are where society looks after its young until they are old enough to take their places as adult citizens. School leaders try to be good public servants and also model the kind of behaviour that we value in society. So what’s this debate really about? Is it a classic moral panic? Adults fear their own mobile phone use is out of control, and assume that young people are in the same state. It makes no difference if a school bans phones but children go home and everyone’s on phones all evening with little interaction. I go to meetings where adults email, text and surf the internet when they should be engaging. It’s not like that at school: our young people know that’s rude. Our policies are much more subtle and thought-through than this frantic debate suggests.

AL I, like you, dislike frantic debates, as they often miss the real point of the issue. This is something I’ve been looking at for a while. The evidence from schools we’ve visited that do not allow smartphones at all is far from a knee-jerk response to “moral panic” but eminently sensible, well thought-through, school-decided policy. None of the children are obsessively using their smartphones at home because they can’t at school, although some admitted to increased home use in the early days of the policy coming in; in fact, by not having them at school, they’ve learned a lot about not using them quite as much, full stop. They told us this time and time again. One head we spoke to said she didn’t want to have confiscation and waiting for a problem to develop when she was aware of problems anyway, such as inappropriate photographs being taken and shared, and incidents of bullying via social media. Her response was, let’s not have the issue here at all.

When she announced the plan, one group of parents applauded. The police were supportive because no longer would several hundred children be coming to or leaving a school at a set time with a valuable item on them. The school allows simple mobile phones to be kept in bags in case a parent needs calling when a journey to or from school goes wrong. There isn’t a panic about some of the very real issues around increased screen time and social media with children. And children say so themselves. Our report Life in Likes demonstrates some of the pressures children aged eight to 12 feel with this new aspect to their daily lives, many of whom were discussing apps they shouldn’t actually be using. Adults, of course, have examples to set, but I disagree this debate is driven by a projected panic about their own behaviour.

CR It’s the debate around what constitutes an “eminently sensible, well thought-through school-decided policy” that worries me. Schools have many approaches to managing behaviour of all kinds, and we think about it very hard, and all the time. It hardly needs saying that schools that have the management systems and consistency to enforce a phone ban have better results. Behaviour management is a subtle and crucial professional and institutional skill. The better the behaviour, the better the learning and the happier the community. Commentators and policy-makers are very keen to talk about specifics: doing lines, picking up litter, wearing ties, banning mobile phones – but happy and productive communities can’t be mandated by a centrally generated ad hoc tick list of issues that hit the news. Ending up in a position where behaviour policies are handed down from the centre would be a huge change in the way we run schools.

I look out of the window where my young people are enjoying the sun at break. I can see about 600 of them, hardly a phone in sight. When they go to the next lesson, their phones will be silent in their bags. Perhaps they’ll use a phone if there aren’t enough calculators, or to take a photo of their homework. Perhaps they’ll record a conversation. Perhaps they’ll look up a fact. Perhaps they’ll use it in a digital safety lesson. Perhaps a couple will be confiscated today, from 1,900 students. Whatever they do, they’ll be surrounded by adults helping them learn to live responsibly.

AL I can’t help but admire what sounds like a very happy place to be. Our argument isn’t to impose a tick box or tell schools how they achieve this. We are coming from the point of view that with children out at break, enjoying the sun, talking and building a sense of community, isn’t it worth asking what a smartphone adds to that? They can look up facts all over school, most schools have access to the internet, a lot have their own devices to do that. In the schools that have gone smartphone free, self-moderation of smartphone use at home and at weekends was one of the by-products.

Where we do agree is about the concept of imposition. My feeling is there is a very good, positive and persuasive case for heads to consider going smartphone-free, and for parents to want that, too, but it must be a persuasion not an imposition. I don’t see this like school rules over ties or litter, nor once again a ban on all phones, but as a question. At the end of the school day, what does a private personal smartphone in the hands of a pupil add to the school experience? And if there is anything, isn’t it outweighed by some considerable downsides? You can still teach self-moderation and digital resilience and explore the internet at school without one. I am not keen on unenforceable top-down bans; I am in favour of schools deciding it’s the way forward and then how best to put it in place, but I’m most in favour of asking that difficult question especially when children themselves, the first generation to grow up with this digital reality, want guidance and advice. As yet, I’ve not heard a compelling answer that would suggest to me that smartphones significantly add to school experience. As I’ve said, nobody is banning smartphones from life, just choosing not to have them at school, and I’ve met many youngsters who see that and are actually pretty comfortable with it.

CR Thank you for your kind thoughts: let me tell you, we have our ups and downs! There’s a bit of a circular argument developing here. You suggest that smartphones don’t add anything to school life; I argue that they don’t necessarily detract. Therefore, if smartphones are part of normal adult life, we should see if we can model a good way of using and ignoring them in school.

I wonder why it is this debate that has attracted everyone’s attention? Is it because there’s an ostensibly easy metric? Ban phones and results go up by 6%? I suppose that’s easier to think about than shrinking school funding, the terrible teacher shortage and the examination burden that’s decimating the arts in state schools and driving some of our young people to despair.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that society has every right to require particular values and actions of schools. That’s why teachers and headteachers are subject to such intense scrutiny. I’d just rather this was part of a real national debate on the behaviour we want to model with our children.


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