25 March 2024

 What follows is neither an endorsement of the new DfE guidance or a criticism of its aims and scope but rather a piece to hopefully stimulate discussion by boards so that a new perspective can be brought to bear on this thorny topic.


DfE guidance: Mobile phones in schools

We are where we are for better or worse so why now the rush to formal guidance. I think it’s a lot to do with the increased ownership of phones, which for many years, in the recent past, was a rite of passage just for those moving up to secondary education. This has now trickled down to junior and infant age children leading to well documented impacts on behaviour and wellbeing for so many of our young students. According to the DfE 97% of 12 year olds now own a mobile phone with Ofcom reporting in March 2023 that mobile phone usage and ownership rose to 20% of 4-8 year olds, rising to 50% for 9 year olds and 60-80% for 10-11 year olds. 

In early reaction to its publication various education commentators stated that most schools already do this, so the guidance is unnecessary, but I think a more accurate portrayal is most schools have something in place but of course there was no DfE guidance to base that position on so policy was produced in a vacuum. In publishing, not only guidance, but also case studies and a toolkit it provides a firm footing upon which schools can tweak, update or put in place a policy, firmly rooted in their Behaviour Policy, that will allow the implementation of a ‘mobile free’ school. 

The DfE are advocating an approach that falls into one of four approaches schools have taken on the issue of mobile phones in schools, namely:
1.    No mobile phones on the school premises
2.    Mobile phones handed into staff on arrival at school.
3.    Mobile phones kept in a secure location, which the pupil does not access throughout the school day.
4.    Mobile phones are never used, seen or heard whilst at school.

I guess in descending order that reads extreme, impractical, how on earth and wishful thinking but looking at the DfE case studies, schools are making one or more combinations of these work.

If today’s devices were the size of the original mobile phone, slung over the shoulder with a large power pack and running off mains power, then without a doubt all the arguments for and against would simply founder on the impracticality of allowing hundreds of such devices into schools. It’s worth pondering that a secondary school with 1000 students means that there will be upwards of 900+ mobile phones on site with a combined value running into the hundreds of £1000s! Despite the quantum leaps in sophistication, reach, smart applications it appears that it’s the size reduction that has enabled unfettered access into our schools. If we consider the ‘misuse’ of mobiles enabling a tsunami of control, coercion, bullying, grooming, radicalisation, county lines, easy access to pornography and misogynistic content to name but a few, how is it we have allowed them on site? Schools are absolutely united in banning cigarettes, vapes, weapons and alcohol for obvious reasons and yet mobile phones are often cited as enabling behaviour(s) that can lead to suspension, exclusion or worse. In more extreme cases the ‘weapon of choice’ for bullying behaviour is the mobile phone contributing to a wave of mental health and wellbeing problems being experienced by our students. 

Peer pressure is another area of concern, it’s hard to comprehend the pressure on both parents and students to not only have the latest ‘must have’ device but also a suitable contract to support it. In these straightened times, given the eyewatering costs of both these, how must this impact on family finances in trying to do the right thing realising that schools are the catwalk that shames those that can’t or don’t want to equip their children with mobile phones? Whilst we can’t control what our students access beyond the school gates, we can try to do everything in school to limit access to harmful content to reduce phone related incidents.  

There are very clear circumstances where the possession of a mobile phone may be absolutely essential whether to support with medical need, particular learning applications and technologies and where students have caring responsibilities. With these the use is unarguable, clear and controllable in the classroom and wider school given that only a small number of students will require them. 

Students need to be able to contact home and friends on their way to and from school, this is the most commonly advanced argument for allowing them into school. I think for the vast majority of students they, as previous ‘phone less’ generations did, make their way to and from school with little or no need of a phone for emergencies – those that don’t either head straight to school or home afterwards are enabled by mobile phones to pursue whatever behaviour they choose – perhaps we need to consider far more urgently the part that mobile phones play in the contextual safeguarding challenges that result?

So, what to do? A total ban, handed in & locked away, switched off and not to be seen or maybe with a ‘school lock’ installed Block Mobile Phones At School with ParentShield.   Or simply trust our students to ‘do the right thing’. If you develop a policy around banning mobile phones, as suggested by the DfE, and you underpin this by banning them in your Behaviour policy, then bags can be searched, phones can be confiscated, and sanctions applied. 

Consider that in schools we ask our staff to model great behaviours and be role models but one thing that it’s almost impossible to do is model how students should be with their mobile phone. Furthermore, the wider world of home, community and online offers such a poor or distorted example of how mobile phones can/ should play a positive role in a person’s life but rather sucks them into dependence and sometimes addiction to the virtual world they hold in their hands. The idea schools, that in so many ways prepare students for the world of work, find it is so difficult to do so in terms of mobile phones where the tolerance of personal phones in the workplace ranges from outright bans through to no rules at all. As ever so much of how mobile phones impacts students in our schools is reliant on their own self-control and discipline and how the use of phones is modelled in the home.

So where does all this leave us? Well as governors we need to carefully consider this non-statutory guidance issued by the DfE. If mobile phones are an issue in your school, then parents and Ofsted will want to know what you have done in response to manage their impact. Simply banning them without a policy and/ or adding them to the list of banned items in your behaviour policy (whilst carefully describing the exceptions) will not pass the litmus test. The DfE toolkit provides useful facts and figures to present to parents together with suggestions on how to communicate them and how to introduce and enforce a policy limiting the presence of mobiles in your school. As governors are you aware of what low and high level disruption mobiles are causing during the school day, levels of confiscation and more critically where behaviours are impacted and/or lead to suspensions and exclusions were enabled by mobiles?

Maybe it shouldn’t be so much a question of banning mobile phones in schools but rather why did we ever allow them into schools in the first place? Locking the stable door after the proverbial horse has bolted may best describe where we are. To do nothing is not an option, to do something is critical and whether and how to implement an outright ban or similar option should be an agenda item until agreement is reached. Should serious thought be given to running support sessions for parents and carers? When it comes to mobile phones all our students are vulnerable for a variety of reasons, let’s be sure that whatever we put in place ensures as best possible that our schools are a safe and protected environment.

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