To ban or not to ban?

How four HMC schools are approaching the use of mobile technology on site

Jesse Elzinga

(Reading Blue Coat School)

Like many Heads, I have studied the research into mobile phone usage amongst young people. I am not persuaded that banning phones in school is the way forward; instead I want to educate our pupils on how to use them responsibly. I am convinced that phones must not be in the bedroom at bedtime and overnight – this is where they do the most damage.

There is ample research that demonstrates how mobile phones disrupt the sleep patterns of young people. Work done by HMC and Digital Awareness UK last year evidenced the sad state of affairs: almost half of teenagers check their mobile device after going to bed, and nearly a quarter admit to checking their phones ten times a night. In the same study, more than 50% of young people said they worry about sleep deprivation after using their phones at night.

They are right to be worried. The single biggest obstacle to pupil progress is sleep deprivation, which directly impacts on the cognitive function of the brain. A lack of sleep lowers mood, energy levels, efficiency and productivity. It is also true that memory only works properly when people sleep well – memories are processed and stored whilst we sleep.

This is why my advice to parents and pupils is that mobile phones must not be in the bedroom. The technology is addictive, and the ‘blue light’ of phones suppresses the secretion of melatonin, which is the chemical that helps make you sleepy. If the phone is charged overnight in another room, then it is less likely to be a disruptive through the night.

Enough about the bedroom: let’s talk about school. The mobile phone policy in our school is just one sentence long: ‘mobile phones may only be used in common rooms at break or lunchtime, or following a direct instruction from a member of staff’. Pupils who are found using their phones at other points of the day expect to have them confiscated. In practice, this means that our school appears to be a phone-free site. As staff and pupils walk around the campus, we look each other in the eye and offer a greeting. This teaches basic manners and courtesy. Our dining hall is completely mobile free, which means pupils and staff engage in conversation and look at each other. This simple policy works well.

It is worth pointing out that many scientists agree that we do not yet know the impact that the increased prevalence of screens in our life will have. However, scientists do agree that sleep is essential. As a Headmaster, part of my duty is to teach proper conduct. My advice to parents helps to ensure that our pupils awake every morning ready to make the most of the day ahead. Any parent who reads ‘Why We Sleep’ by Professor Matthew Walker, the British doctor who runs the Centre of Human Sleep Science at University of California, Berkeley will quickly become convinced that the main danger of mobile phones is disruption to sleep. Our policy in school helps to educate on best practice with mobiles throughout the course of the day. It is hard to imagine a better environment than one where everyone is well-rested, and smiles with a cheerful greeting.

Images taken from the HMC and Digital Awareness UK “Tech Control” video.

Chris Townsend

(Felsted School)

Matt Hancock’s pronouncement that we should ban mobile phones from schools received praise from a significant proportion of commentators, and has helped to reignite a debate that has never been far away for anyone with responsibility for young people. Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer and the lead for the UK, said (in light of the tragic Molly Russell case) that companies had a duty of care to help keep children safe and that age limits for using social media needed to be properly enforced.

Without doubt, the challenge of managing mobile digital technology is one of the great challenges for the current generation. The reality is that technology has progressed so quickly that, as a society, we do not have a full understanding, and rules are not embedded into our expectations. We are trying to catch up with technology that seems to be running quickly away from us. As recently as 15 years ago, boarders would queue at a house payphone in the evening for a brief conversation home, whereas now, they can be in constant communication via any one of a number of video call services, social media outlets, or messaging services.

A blanket ban on phones in schools sounds attractive, but my fear is that this would remove schools from the important educational process around positive use of technology. Clearly there need to be boundaries, and these work best when agreed between school and home, so that there is a consistent approach. At Felsted, we do not allow pupils to have phones during the school day, until they reach Year 11, and similarly younger pupils do not have phones overnight (if they are boarding). For older pupils, there is a code of conduct, written in consultation with pupils, designed to teach positive use of technology. After all, mobiles can be used effectively in the classroom, as a planner, a diary, a research tool, and much more besides.

Pupils are encouraged to manage their online presence, and to raise concerns, where they have them, about the behaviour of others. Other activities, such as sport, music and drama are given high prominence, and real-life conversation is encouraged at all times. However, our code of conduct was written 18 months ago, and technology continues to move, leaving this looking dated. We are about to start reviewing and updating this protocol, to be shared with parents, as well as pupils, and also sets the same expectations for staff. Adults are often very poor at modelling appropriate behaviour in this area!

The reality for all young people today is that technology is going to play a vital role in their future lives. It offers an incredible range of opportunities to all of us, and it is a responsibility for schools to educate in safe and appropriate use of technology. We must teach young people to be in control of their technology, rather than being controlled by it.

Kathy Crewe-Read

(Wolverhampton Grammar School)

At Wolverhampton Grammar School we believe there are tangible educational benefits to allowing mobile phone use, and as such pupils have been encouraged to bring them into school. That said it is clear to all that there are times when the use of phones is desirable and times when it should be discouraged.

Through a process of consultation with staff, and then the student body, clear guidelines were drawn up. As is often the case, the spirit of the law is as important as the letter, and we have been clear that students are required to exercise wise judgement at all times.

The school community agreed that:

  • Appropriate use of devices includes any curriculum activity when directed by teachers; in the library when used to assist learning; and before or after school, when usage does not conflict with a student’s other obligations.

  • Phone use is not appropriate when walking between lessons; in areas where students could potentially be vulnerable (such as lavatories and changing rooms); and during tutor time or lunch, when it is more important to talk to people face to face.

Is this a perfect solution to the ‘to have or not to have’ dilemma? Well no, of course not. Young people make mistakes: walk round school at lunchtime and you could well find children sitting in form rooms, playing Fortnite, rather than talking, and occasionally you’ll see them walking round the campus messaging or chatting on their phones. Wolverhampton Grammar School is not a utopia (yet!), but pupils’ behaviour is good and instances of online bullying or such like are few and far between.

Mobile phones and other such tech like tablets are here to stay, and both educators and parents have a responsibility to teach young people how to use them responsibly and well. And realistically, which of us would willingly relinquish the convenience of our own smartphone to enable us to access the knowledge of the world in seconds, or the comfort of almost immediate contact with our loved ones? Why then, might we require something different of our young?

Laura Knight

(Director of Digital Learning, Berkhamsted Schools Group)

Once upon a time, students bringing smartphones into lessons seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. Flexibility, portability, and easy access to online quizzes and reference materials………why not harness all that computing power for learning?

But over recent years, the focus of conversation and media debate has shifted from interaction to dependence, and from innovation to addiction. Moral panic, click-bait headlines, and parental pressure led to a growing demand for change, and the responsibility for that change seemed to fall to schools.

In such circumstances, a ban looks like an easy and decisive fix. However, bans create an artificial binary, which we felt was not realistic in our digitally infused world. We had heard tales of students handing in dummy handsets, creating a ‘black market’ in data hotspots and VPNs, and young people avoiding making safeguarding disclosures for fear of reprisal about phone use. We were determined to take positive, reasoned steps, rather than risk driving the problems underground.

We undertook an extensive review of the literature and research reports, and were especially struck by The Byron Review (2008):

'Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe - this isn’t just about a top-down approach. Children will be children - pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool, we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.’

We cannot expect our youngest students to cope if they are thrown, unprepared, in at the deep end. We also cannot send our oldest students out into the world still needing armbands. Motivated by the metaphor of developing strong swimmers, we created a Digital Wellbeing Framework, with three key principles at its heart:

  • Age-appropriate digital autonomy

  • Digital resilience and mindful self-regulation

  • Ethical participation in online life

We have a graduated approach to the age at which students can bring devices into school, and the degree to which they need permission to use them. We have also created spaces and times in school when using devices for learning is encouraged, with structured sanctions for unacceptable behaviours. Our colour-coded zones make it clear for students and staff whether devices can be used, in much the same way that parents may have zoning rules at home about where food may be eaten or where pets are allowed to go. We support families through a comprehensive range of talks, workshops and online resources, from EYFS to Sixth Form. This is combined with regular staff training, whole-school assemblies and a digital wellbeing curriculum for students which spans PSHE and ICT/ Computing.

One year on from its launch, we still firmly believe that it is possible for us as individuals and as a school community to be both pro-tech and pro-boundaries. It is in this space that we can live and learn well.