Mobile phones could be banned from schools in England if the latest attempt to push the measure through by a Conservative education secretary is successful.
The guidance, which would align all schools in the country, would affect the whole school day, Gillian Keegan is reportedly due to tell the Tory party conference in Manchester on Monday.
Ministers already encourage headteachers to limit phone usage, with many schools having put restrictions in place. But the BBC reported Keegan wanted expanded guidance to be offered by Whitehall, and government sources told the broadcaster they were confident it would have an effect. The guidance would be issued “shortly”, though the BBC said no specific date was announced.
A government source told the Daily Mail: “Gillian believes mobile phones pose a serious challenge in terms of distraction, disruptive behaviour and bullying. It is one of the biggest issues children and teachers have to grapple with, so she will set out a way forward to empower teachers to ban mobiles from classrooms.”
In July, a UN report recommended banning smartphones from schools to tackle classroom disruption, improve learning and help protect children from cyberbullying.
Unesco, the UN’s education, science and culture agency, said there was evidence that excessive mobile phone use was linked to reduced educational performance and that high levels of screen time had a negative effect on children’s emotional stability.
Unesco’s director general, Audrey Azoulay, said: “The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential but, just as warnings have been voiced for how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education.
“Its use must be for enhanced learning experiences and for the wellbeing of students and teachers, not to their detriment. Keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers. Online connections are no substitute for human interaction.”
The Unesco report said countries should have clear objectives and principles in place to ensure digital technology in education was beneficial and avoided harm.
It is at least the third attempt by the Tories to introduce the measure. Last year, the Department for Education deemed it unnecessary because it believed most schools were doing enough.
In February, it produced the results of a consultation on the subject that said: “Most schools have well-developed plans in place for the management of mobile phones and further intervention from government isn’t necessary. In most cases, mobile phones are already banned for the majority of the school day with schools taking a range of measures to enforce that policy.”
Keegan’s proposed guidance would not affect schools in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland because education is a devolved issue.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, accused the government of failing to address the real problems facing schools of funding and staff shortages. He said: “The announcement of a ‘mobile phone ban’ is a policy which isn’t needed for something that isn’t a problem timed for the Conservative party conference in a desperate attempt to grab a headline.”
He said most schools already prohibited the use of mobile phones during the school day and most of the problems associated with mobiles – addictive use, bullying and inappropriate material – generally happened outside school.
The NASUWT teachers’ union said its own survey of 6,500 UK teachers last month showed there was a behaviour crisis in schools. Teachers’ biggest concerns were verbal and physical abuse in the classroom, while a far smaller number reported that mobile phones were causing behaviour issues.
Daniel Kebede, the general secretary of the National Education Union, said the government’s own consultation earlier this year concluded that most schools already had policies in place to deal with the problems of mobile phone use and urged the education secretary to focus instead on the challenge of teacher recruitment, real-terms funding cuts, the lack of mental health support and rising levels of child poverty.