Mobile Phone Safeguarding In Schools

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Phil Naylor

Phil is a Deputy Headteacher , a Science SLE and a Local Authority Primary School Governor. Phil is the host of the podcast Naylor's Natter.
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What is your school’s stance on pupil mobile phone use?

Phones are black holes for the real estate of our attention: banning them in schools is a no-brainer (Tom Bennett, 2021)

The debate

Mobile (smart) phone usage in schools has become one of the circuitous and binary debates within education. Critics call for bans where phones have no place in school life and even debate whether they should be in the possession of school-age children. Proponents of smartphone use highlight their benefits for learning; heralding the new age of 21st Century learning which cannot be halted no matter how much critics push against the vanguard of progress.

The issues

1. Access – Unfettered and unrestricted access to 4G/5G in school time means students could be accessing inappropriate materials and potentially sharing these with other students.

2. Constant connection – Being constantly connected means that attention is naturally taken away from the learning or the task at hand. Even the presence of a phone is a distraction. Studies including Chu et al (2021), have shown that having a phone on and in sight reduces concentration. Think as an adult how many times your attention has been taken by the ping of your phone and you have emerged 20 minutes later having forgotten what you were doing previously.

3. Freedom and safeguarding – Being contactable is the purpose of mobile technology. The ability to reach you wherever you are is very helpful from a safeguarding perspective. Some parents feel reassured that children have a phone and can be reached if needed should plans change or delays happen. This is a double-edged sword, as this potentially does not allow the child the headspace and freedom to be a child within school time. Constantly checking phones for updates from parents, siblings, family and friends can bring its own anxieties and these messages are always relayed through school offices and receptionists.

4. Online organisation – Following the partial closure of schools and the online learning revolution, many schools have introduced some ‘keepers’ from this period. One is the possibility of online learning and using computing systems to support this. Online lessons are not currently needed but many schools are running systems to record achievement, attendance, homework, and parental communication through apps. These apps have gone some way to replacing more traditional planners and require students and parents to log on to access some schoolwork and communications. Proponents of mobile phone use in schools point to their value in increasing students’ access to online learning, to supplement and supporting face-to-face teaching. They would also like students to record homework via these apps, potentially requiring their brief use in class.

5. Cashless society – Technology in canteens/buses. This may not yet be a huge issue (certainly in primary schools), however, in an increasingly cashless society, it will become more and more difficult for canteens to support cash payments for food at lunch and break times. Many older secondary-age students are now well versed and used to apple pay or equivalents regularly. If public transport also continues its drive towards cash-free travel, students will have to bring phones or cards to school for tickets. Will mobile phone bans have to accommodate contactless payments in the near future?

Varying Opinions

Some things in education are absolutes, but many policies and procedures have reasonable adaptations and adjustments. In the case of mobile phones, 2 key quotes may help staff make a decision about mobile phones in school.

Schools and colleges should carefully consider how this [mobile phone policy] is managed on their premises and reflect this in their mobile and smart technology policy and their child protection policy (Keeping Children Safe in Education, 2022)

Restricting access to cell phones during all or part of the school day is really hard but also really important (Doug Lemov, 2022)

A mobile phone ban where students are not allowed to bring schools into the school is unwieldy, largely unworkable and is unlikely to have the backing of staff and parents. They restrict some of the benefits of the phones for home communication and safeguarding benefits on the journey to and from school.

However, it is difficult to satisfy the requirements of the KCSIE document if phones are allowed to be used for even part of the day in school. It is also detrimental to concentration, socialisation and student progress if mobile phones are allowed around the school.

A compromise

The compromise position which satisfies all the above points and could meet with the firm backing of parents and staff (and even students) is the introduction of mobile phone guidelines.

Mobile phones should not be seen from ‘gate to gate’, in other words, phones can be brought to school but must be switched off in bags or pockets and not be seen on the school site. If phones are seen and guidelines are broken, phones are taken and stored centrally to be returned ‘at the gate’.

Many schools have reported pupils are happier and more engaged in lessons and around the school having been freed from ‘the black holes for the real estate of their attention’.

Footnote: There is a case study currently being trialled at the University of Birmingham.

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