Glyn Potts, head teacher at Newman Roman Catholic College in Oldham, could not hide his irritation at the morning headlines announcing a government ban on mobile phones in state schools in England.
His school, like the vast majority, already has a mobile phone policy. “All banned and have been for 10 years,” he said, dismissing the announcement by the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, as a “smokescreen” to distract from the real challenges facing schools, such as underfunding, teacher recruitment and providing for pupils with special educational needs.
At Newman RC College, there’s a zero tolerance approach towards mobiles. Pupils can have their phones with them for the journey to and from school, but as soon as they cross the threshold into the school grounds phones must be switched off and kept out of sight for the duration of the school day.
Pupils are banned from even holding them in their hands, whether it’s lesson or break time. If mobiles are seen they are confiscated and not returned until the end of the day. It is a measure of the effectiveness of the policy that although the vast majority of the 1,502 pupils carry mobiles, staff will only see two or three a week at most.
“My goal here is to make sure there’s no disruption to learning,” said Potts. Bullying and sharing of inappropriate material on mobiles are also big issues for young people. “It’s about the common good which has to be young people focusing on learning and their teacher, not on their mobile,” he said.
Other schools have different policies. Some ban mobiles altogether so children are not allowed to bring them to school at all, which can be difficult to enforce if pupils hide their phones. Others require phones to be handed in at the start of the day and returned as pupils leave, while some schools allow restricted use at lunch and break times or for schoolwork in class.
“I agree with minimising the use of phones in school for anything other than learning-based activities; however, our school uses phones as part of those learning activities,” said one Guardian reader who wished to remain anonymous, warning a ban “will impact the kids’ in-class research, management of homework tasks and timetabling and team collaboration on project work”.
Some argue for exceptions, for children with special education needs, mental health issues and caring responsibilities, for example. Carers Trust’s CEO, Kirsty McHugh, said: “It’s vital that the hundreds of thousands of young carers in England are exempt from any complete ban on mobile phones in schools, which will make their lives even harder. An outright ban would make it impossible for them to stay in touch with the family members they look after.”
While many parents want their children to be allowed to carry phones to school so they can stay in touch, many are happy to see them banned from the classroom. Nick Smith, a sales account manager from Cheshire, has three children. “This is a catch-22 for me but in the main I would not want to see them banned completely,” he said.
“My 11-year-old has just started high school and in light of this, and his new independence, walking home, arranging his own after-school activities and to keep in touch with his parents, we bought him a phone for the first time.
“I don’t approve of them in a classroom but if they ban them from school completely, rather than just insist they are off and in a bag during the school day, that would cause more problems than good.”
There was a mixed reception to the ban, announced on Monday as the Conservatives gathered for their party conference in Manchester. “Classic conference announcement this,” policy expert and former Department for Education adviser Sam Freedman said.
“Something nearly all schools already do and that the government can’t force them to do anyway,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter. Although it may have been reported as “a ban on mobile phones”, it will in fact take the form of non-statutory guidance and is therefore not a legal requirement. Downing Street indicated yesterday the government could legislate on the issue.
“If it sounds familiar,” Freedman goes on, “that’s because it was also announced in 2021.” Gavin Williamson, the education secretary in 2019-21, also sought a ban on mobile phones as part of a consultation on pupil behaviour and discipline in schools, which concluded last year that a blanket ban was not necessary as most schools were already taking action.
The government’s behaviour adviser Tom Bennett was, however, delighted. “From a safeguarding, learning, and growth point of view, this is absolutely the right decision. The schools that do this never look back, and never regret it,” he posted on X.