Rhiannon Williams

Off days

Meet the headteachers questioning the value of the digital detox

Off days
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The modern school is, unsurprisingly, a very different place to even ten years ago — largely thanks to the rise of technology. Where corridors once rang with the sound of laughter, they now buzz with the ping, ping, ping of WhatsApps, Snapchats and texts as students message each other in an ever-revolving cycle of communication. While the leisurely use of smartphones in the classroom is a universal no-no, some schools have taken matters into their own hands to focus pupils’ minds and improve their performance by issuing blanket digital detoxes across the board. But are they right to do so?

In January, headmaster Gregg Davies made headlines with his decision to ban pupils at Shiplake College in Henley-on-Thames from using their phones between 8.15 a.m. and 5.45 p.m. Restricting pupils who board to using mobiles only in the evening meant they were more likely to enjoy longer lunches and ‘actual conversations’, he claimed, adding that increased interaction with their friends had ‘relieved the pressure of constantly showcasing life online’.

Stroud High School in Gloucestershire brought in a permanent ban not only on smartphones but fitness trackers and smartwatches as well — and many other schools are following suit. Nadine Moore, the school’s assistant headteacher, wrote a letter to parents describing the pressures of social media and constant connectivity on today’s teenagers. ‘Seeing friends constantly “having fun” can make young people feel like they are missing out while others enjoy life,’ she wrote. ‘While for many young people fear of missing out may not be a problem, for others it is causing them distress in the form of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.’

While such wide-ranging bans may seem to be on the extreme end of the scale, Max Haimendorf, principal of King Solomon Academy (KSA) in Marylebone, has gained notoriety as the man willing to confiscate pupils’ games consoles and other electronics from their homes (with their parents’ blessing).

‘What has happened more than once is that the parent has come into the school and said, “I do not want my child using this. I want you to keep it until they are better behaved,”’ he told the Times earlier this year. ‘Where specific children have said “I have been up late playing PlayStation” or on the internet, there definitely have been circumstances where [they] have been clearly exhausted in classrooms.’

Mr Haimendorf’s measures appear to have paid off in terms of academic achievement. His school was awarded an outstanding rating by Ofsted in 2013 and achieved the highest GCSE results for a non-selective school in England in 2015. An uptick in grades as a result of a ban on phones appears to be a fairly universal theme. Schools with an embargo on mobiles saw the test scores of 16-year-olds improve by 6.4 per cent on average, while the results of lower-achieving students improved by 12.2 per cent, a study by the London School of Economics found in 2015. High-achieving students were not affected by the ban, suggesting they were able to focus, regardless of whether or not they had their phones. Prohibiting mobile use in this manner could be a significant method of reducing educational inequality, the study concluded.

On this basis, schools that already exhibit high performance records are unlikely to benefit enormously from these detoxes. There are also concerns that stopping pupils from using their electronics is an attempt to modify behaviour in a manner that is too heavy-handed, and not necessarily helpful.

‘For me, the word detox is the worrying one. Alarm bells start ringing because the opposite of detox is bingeing,’ says Dr Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), a network of independent girls’ schools. ‘It implies you’re going to go back to bingeing afterwards — it’s a temporary thing. Although it’s a biological analogy, it’s almost got the ethical and religious implications of giving stuff up for Lent.’

Dr Stannard is unaware of any psychological evidence that suggests withdrawal from electronics has the same effects on the brain a detox is supposed to have ‘in the biological sense’. ‘As far as I’m aware, all the changes in the brain that take place as a result of people using digital devices are long-term. A detox isn’t going to address that.’

The students at his 24 independent schools and two academies are ‘very, very sensible’ and aware of but not invulnerable to the pressures of social media and digital dependency, Stannard says. ‘But detoxing is an extreme solution to a problem we’re only just beginning to understand.’

Jenny Brown, headmistress of St Albans High School for Girls, Hertfordshire, agrees. ‘It’s not about removing risk or threat, it’s about learning to manage it. We haven’t got a digital detox policy in place, but we would never say never,’ she says. ‘It can be self-defeating, though. You spend a vast amount of your time policing something that is nigh-on unpoliceable. This is always the number-one concern for parents —how much monitoring do you do as a parent, why do you do it and when does it stop?’

While she doesn’t strictly enforce technology abstinence inside the school, Brown seriously advises parents to remove phones from their children at night time — particularly their daughters. ‘I’m a parent of a 19-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, and it’s a completely different ballpark with the son. It’s not umbilical in the same way it was with my daughter,’ she says. ‘If I was head of a different kind of school, a detox may well be the case. But St Albans High pupils are incredibly able and self-motivated and very hard-working, and if anything, I spend a lot of my time trying to make sure they don’t over-work.’

Natasha Atherton, mother to 14-year-old Kitty, feels her daughter is less engaged (‘and, frankly, pleasant’) the more time she spends on her phone. ‘While I would understand her indignation, I feel that it would benefit her and other teens to have a digital detox,’ she says. ‘At break times, rather than being outside chatting or playing a game, they’re streaming films or TV series to watch. However, my daughter is an only child, and enjoys the fact she can communicate and discuss things with her friends via her mobile.’

The push within education to embrace technology in the classroom and to equip the next generation with the skills and know-how to help plug the UK’s digital skills gap seems at odds with the need to cleanse schools of personal gadgets. Yet while it’s easy to fret about social media, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective, says Dr Stannard.

‘What’s the difference between staring passively at a TV when you got home from school 40 years ago to passively browsing the internet? While I don’t underplay the pressures that children are under nowadays, there wasn’t a pre-digital golden age.’