In September 2018, I made the decision to ban mobile phones during the academic day at the school where I am head teacher in Scotland. I’m pretty sure we were the first British school to make this leap of faith. It made headlines across the country. How would everyone react? I knew that I needed to explain the thinking behind the decision to convince doubters and encourage support. It wouldn’t be a popular decision, so it was with a churning stomach that I rose to address the assembled pupils, having just pressed ‘send’ on a parent-body email.
Fast-forward to August 2021 and the banning of mobile phones is now part of the national narrative. The Department for Education is spearheading a proposal that every school might be forced to adopt. Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, wants to push though the initiative. But, perhaps surprisingly, not everyone agrees it is a good idea.
You would be forgiven for thinking I am quietly proud of having played a tiny part in the crossbench debate affecting so many of the nation’s schoolchildren. After all, my own experience has been — apart from a couple of instances of pupils waiting to be picked up, unable to call their parents, or rocking up at incorrect sports fields due to lack of communication — entirely positive.
After the ban came in, we immediately noticed that pupils were holding their heads higher and maintaining eye contact. Teachers reported the ‘instantaneous effect’ of returning chatter. Social media ‘withdrawal’ was less painful an experience than we might have dared hope. ‘In just two weeks, the effect has been astonishing. The change in [our daughter] is amazing, it’s like having our own girl back. No sign of panic or anxiety,’ said one parent.
Hoorah. I would love to be able to present solid evidence that the removal of mobiles directly correlated with improved exam results, but that’s a tricky one to quantify. As any head teacher will tell you, results ebb and flow. But what we did notice was that subversive screen-checks became increasingly passé, similar to the historical puff behind the bike shed. Interestingly, sixth-form girls — who were right on the cusp of having permanent social media access — were quicker to embrace the brave new world than younger pupils. Three years’ later and our school continues to flourish with far fewer bent heads, distracted pupils and social media-driven anxiety.
Why, then, do I not wholly support the Secretary of State’s cause? After all, Williamson has said: ‘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,’ which fits with my own views.
While I agree that banning mobiles in schools is a good idea, I do not think it needs to be a government-backed policy enforced by law. I’m more inclined to agree with the Association of School and College Leaders, which said that it ‘believes strongly that the use of mobile phones during the school day should be determined by school leaders, who are best placed to decide on the impact of these decisions on their pupils’ learning and wellbeing’. I strongly believe that in this, as in other areas, head teachers should be masters of their own ships.
For many teenagers, technology is their first language. It is better to learn to live with it and develop ways to use it in a responsible manner. Youngsters need to understand the detrimental effects of mobiles and that social media platforms are not always positive places. School is for academic pursuits but it is also an important social arena in which teenagers learn to better engage with their peers, not hide behind screens. A nationwide ban on mobile phones would be too draconian.
Pupils must learn for themselves that there is life beyond their mobile phone. A heavy hand from above is not the way to do this. The Department for Education’s approach, while laudable in its aim, may be slightly outdated — a great deal has happened in three years — and individual school leaders are best-placed to implement their own mobile phone policies. Different schools will need different approaches. Each school is an individual institution and we should trust that the head teacher knows their pupils and can tailor the education accordingly. The same principle should apply to mobile phones. Mobiles are here to stay and, like any tool, children need to learn and understand best practice.