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Headteachers told to search pupils for mobile phones

Gillian Keegan said banning mobile from classrooms would reduce disruption and improve behaviour
Gillian Keegan said banning mobile from classrooms would reduce disruption and improve behaviour - BFG Images/Gallo Images ROOTS Collection

Headteachers will be told to search pupils for mobile phones as part of a government ban on the devices in schools.

Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, said phones were an “unwanted distraction in the classroom” and banishing them would reduce disruption and improve behaviour.

In guidance to be published on Monday, headteachers will be given four options on how to implement the ban, with the most severe being a prohibition on mobile phones on school property, meaning children will have to leave their phones at home.

Other options include making pupils hand in their phones at the door, put them away in lockers all day, or a “never used, seen or heard” policy under which they can keep them but could have them confiscated if they use them.

Headteachers are also encouraged to search children and their bags if they believe they are carrying a mobile phone under existing legal powers.

Gillian Keegan said ‘we are giving our hard-working teachers the tools to take action’
Gillian Keegan said ‘we are giving our hard-working teachers the tools to take action’ - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu/Getty Images

Ms Keegan said: “Schools are places for children to learn and mobile phones are, at a minimum, an unwanted distraction in the classroom.

“We are giving our hard-working teachers the tools to take action to help improve behaviour and to allow them to do what they do best – teach.”

The guidance comes after Esther Ghey, the mother of murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey, called for mobile phones to be specifically made so that under-16s cannot access harmful content.

Last week, the father of Molly Russell, who killed herself after seeing self-harm and suicide images online, joined her to demand tougher action to crack down on social media.

In England, it is up to individual heads to decide their own policies on mobile phones and whether they should be banned. Many have already introduced prohibitions. Katharine Birbalsingh, the leader of Michaela Community School in north London, who is known as Britain’s strictest headteacher, requires children to put phones into a locker when they get to school.

The guidance, which is non-statutory, instructs headteachers on how to ban the use of phones not only during lessons but during break and lunch periods as well.

It makes clear that headteachers, or staff they authorise, have a statutory power to search a pupil or their possessions where they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the pupil is in possession of a prohibited item.

It says: “Headteachers can and should identify mobile phones and similar devices as something that may be searched for in their school behaviour policy.”

‘Least advantaged suffer most’

Tom Bennett, who advises the Department for Education on behaviour, said: “Mobile phones may be ubiquitous, but we have a strong and growing understanding of how damaging they can be for a child’s social and educational development.

“And it’s the least advantaged who suffer most. Many schools already have some kind of policy on phones, but this guidance provides a clear steer for everyone, including parents, about what’s right and what’s not for the wellbeing of the child.”

By the age of 12, 97 per cent of children have their own mobile phone, according to Ofcom. Experts say using mobile phones in schools can lead to online bullying, distraction and classroom disruption which, in turn, can lead to lost learning time.

Last year, Unesco called for smartphones to be banned from schools as evidence showed it was linked to reduced educational performance and that excessive screen time had a negative impact on children’s wellbeing.

Official data show that 29 per cent of secondary school pupils reported mobile phones being used when not supposed to.

The move will bring England in line with steps taken by other countries who have restricted mobile phone use including France, Italy and Portugal.

Ms Keegan announced that the Government planned to ban mobile phones in schools at the Conservative party conference last year.

The guidance gives headteachers four ways to ban phones. The first is “No mobile phones on the school premises”, under which phones must be left at home or with parents. The second is “mobile phone handed in on arrival”, giving pupils access to their mobile phones before and after school. They can then be collected at the end of the school day.

The third is “mobile phones kept in secure location” such as lockers and the last is described as “never used, seen or heard”, under which pupils can keep their phones only on the strict condition that they are never used, seen or heard – with consequences for breaching this such as confiscation.

Last night the Association of School and College Leaders said it did not expect the new guidance to have any discernible effect.

Geoff Barton, its general secretary, said that the “compulsive use” of devices was not happening in schools but “while children are out of school”.

‘Non-policy for a non-problem’

He said: “Most schools already forbid the use of mobile phones during the school day or allow their use only in limited and stipulated circumstances.

“We have lost count of the number of times that ministers have now announced a crackdown on mobile phones in schools. It is a non-policy for a non-problem.

“The Government would be far better off putting its energies into bringing to heel the online platforms via which children are able to access disturbing and extreme content.”