Tuesday briefing: Do mobile phone bans at schools really improve learning?

<span>Photograph: Tetiana Strilchuk/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Tetiana Strilchuk/Alamy

Good morning. Today we’re going to take you straight to Newman Catholic College secondary school in Oldham to meet headteacher Glyn Potts, who is reacting to education minister Gillian Keegan’s plan to ban pupils from using mobile phones in England’s schools. “One of the biggest issues facing children and teachers is grappling with the impact of smartphones in our schools,” she told Conservative party conference. “The distraction, the disruption, the bullying – we know that teachers are struggling with their impact.”

But are they?

“It is so far down my list of priorities,” Potts says over the phone to me while on playground duty. “It wouldn’t make it into my list of the top 10 problems. In fact, I don’t think it would make it into the top 100.”

Potts says his school – and most others in the country – already have mobile phone policies in place. “We don’t need to be told what to do about phones, what we need is for the government to focus on the recruitment and retention crisis, crumbling school buildings, the cost of living crisis and hungry pupils.”

So why did Keegan announce the ban at Conservative party conference yesterday? More from Potts, and education expert Laura McInerney, after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Transport | Rishi Sunak is set to confirm he is scrapping the northern leg of HS2 to Manchester at the Conservative conference in the city despite a furious response and Tory fears it will fatally undermine the party’s commitment to levelling up. Meanwhile business leaders who warned against Ed Miliband in 2015 have now turned on Rishi Sunak, criticising the prime minister’s plans to roll back net zero policies.

  2. Education | Schools in England must challenge unconscious bias against the working class, according to the UK’s first professor of social mobility. Lee Elliot Major argues the system tries to make working-class children into “middle-class clones” when it should celebrate figures such as Stormzy, Tracey Emin, Mary Anning and Michael Faraday.

  3. Crime | New powers will stop people who have killed their partners from gaining parental rights to surviving children. Alex Chalk, the justice secretary, will introduce “Jade’s law” later this year to protect families from the manipulation of jailed abusers.

  4. Crime | Russell Brand is facing a second criminal investigation in connection to allegations of harassment and stalking. The 48-year-old comedian and actor has been accused of rape, assault and emotional abuse between 2006 and 2013, when he was at the height of his fame working for the BBC and Channel 4 and starring in Hollywood films. He denies the allegations.

  5. Science | Prof Katalin Karikó and Prof Drew Weissman have been awarded the 2023 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their contributions to RNA biology that contributed to the unprecedented speed of vaccine development during the Covid pandemic.

In depth: ‘It’s a headline grabber, allowing government to avoid real problems facing schools’

Students at a Bristol school check their results on A-level results.
Students at a Bristol school check their results on A-level results. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Alamy

Keegan announced plans for non-statutory guidance (that means it’s not a legal requirement but more of an obligation) to ban children from using their phones for the whole school day, including break time. She says phones are a big distraction in the classroom that affect children’s learning and can lead to disruptive behaviour as well as cyberbullying.

Potts agrees that phones can cause problems, particularly with bullying and mental health. But he says teachers and headteachers have known this for years, and most schools have already taken action to ban or severely restrict pupils’ phone use at schools.

The ban would only affect English schools, as the devolved governments have powers over schools in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Research by TeacherTapp, an app that surveys 10,000 teachers on a range of issues every day, found that 60% of schools already have policies that ban phone use throughout the day, including break times. Some schools even ban pupils from bringing their phones on to school premises, and some of these policies have been in place for more than a decade.

A further 20% allow pupils to use their phones with the express permission of the teacher (to take photos of the classroom board, to look up information online or to take part in interactive quizzes), and another 20% allow phones only at break times.

“This is a headline grabber, allowing the government to avoid the real problems we’re facing in schools,” Potts says. “It feels like another kick to headteachers who are already doing this, but the government is going to take credit for resolving it.”


Do other countries ban phones?

Unesco, the UN’s education, science and culture agency, is calling for a global ban on mobiles in schools, warning that their use leads to reduced educational performance and has a negative effect on children’s emotional stability.

“Even just having a mobile phone nearby with notifications coming through is enough to result in students losing their attention from the task at hand,” a Unesco report says. “One study found that it can take students up to 20 minutes to refocus on what they were learning once distracted.”

Almost one in four countries have already banned smartphones in schools, according to the study, which found bans are most common in Asia but are also in place in countries ranging from Ivory Coast to Colombia.

When France brought in a nationwide ban last year, education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said: “Children don’t play at break time any more, they are just all in front of their smartphones, and from an educational point of view it’s a problem.”

The Netherlands is bringing in a ban from 1 January, as are some Australian states, and the issue is a hot topic on the campaign trail in the run-up to New Zealand’s general election.

There’s little research to prove whether a ban works or not. But academic research in Sweden found “no impact of mobile phone bans on student performance and can reject even small-sized gains”.

McInerney, a teacher who co-founded TeacherTapp, says her research doesn’t indicate that phones are a big concern for teachers. “The top three are more resources for pupils’ mental health, special educational needs provision and breakfast clubs.” She says that because the proposed ban is non-statutory it will have “very little impact for people on the ground”.

“The one thing it will do is help headteachers who are struggling with parents who are calling for more permissive phone policies. They can now say, ‘Well this isn’t the school saying this, it’s the government.’”


Not a new policy

Potts accuses Keegan of wheeling out the policy as it is popular with most parents, and distracts from the other problems schools are facing. He also points out that it’s nothing new, and had been proposed by former education secretaries Nick Gibb in 2019 and Gavin Williamson in 2021, who said “mobile phones should not be used or seen during the school day”.

The Department for Education last year said: “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.”

Potts says phones are such a small-scale problem at his school, that he “might see two or three phones a week, out of a school of 1,502 children”.

“The kids are pretty sanguine about it now,” he says. “They’d all love to have their phones, but they do recognise that they can distract from their learning.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Annie Lord’s Vogue column is a much-needed reminder that our bodies are not who we are, “they’re what we live in”, and are meant to be used as such. Nimo

  • Lars Findsen was in police custody when he discovered that spies from Denmark’s domestic intelligence agency had tapped his phone and wired his house with bugs. So far, no great shock. But Findsen was Denmark’s top spy chief. This story by Harry Davies could be a film – in fact I imagine it will be soon. Rupert

  • Forty-eight percent of people admit to littering and approximately 2m pieces of rubbish are dropped in the UK every day. Ammar Kalia spoke to the people who refuse to walk by, including one man (above) who estimates that he has picked up 1.2m cigarette butts. Nimo

  • In August thousands of salmon escaped an Icelandic fish farm. Suspected escapers have now been found in at least 32 rivers across north-west of the country, Karen McVeigh tracked them down and saw the deadly impact they could have on their wild cousins. Rupert

  • Shaun Walker’s dispatch from the Poland-Belarus border is vital reading. Activists say the stakes are increasing exponentially, as the dehumanising rhetoric against migrants escalates in the run up to Poland’s general election. Nimo


Referee Simon Hooper shows a red card to Curtis Jones of Liverpool.
Referee Simon Hooper shows a red card to Curtis Jones, centre, of Liverpool. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Football | Liverpool are to appeal against the red card shown to Curtis Jones during their hugely controversial defeat at Tottenham on Saturday. The Liverpool midfielder was dismissed for a 26th-minute foul on Yves Bissouma that initially prompted a yellow card from the referee, Simon Hooper. The card was upgraded to red for serious foul play.

Football | Fresh concerns have been raised over 777 Partners, Everton’s prospective new owners, after another of their clubs failed to meet payments on three transfers costing a total of about £4.5m.

Golf | Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry believe the absence of high-profile LIV rebels from Europe’s Ryder Cup team allowed younger members to shine. Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Sergio García missed out on the 16½-11½ victory against the US in Italy after their switch to the Saudi Arabia-backed circuit. Ludvig Åberg, Nicolai Højgaard and Robert MacIntyre featured in the winning team as rookies.

The front pages

“Sunak accused of ‘cancelling the future’ with climbdown over HS2” – several papers including the Guardian are on this track today. “PM brings axe down on HS2 in the north” says the Times. The i has “Tory rebellion grows as PM scraps HS2 in the North” and the Financial Times reports “Sunak faces mounting protests over plan to axe northern branch of HS2”. “It’s Manc robbery!” says the Metro, with a picture of “furious” king in the north Andy Burnham (the Manchester mayor). The Daily Express thinks it’s these kinds of “tough decisions” that will win the Tories the next election: “Rishi’s ‘path to victory’ by delivering what’s best for Britain”. In other news: “Transgender women to be banned from female wards” says the Daily Telegraph. The top story in the Daily Mirror is “Unforgivable” about a football yob making fun of Bradley Lowery, the Sunderland mascot who died aged six from cancer. And the Daily Mail reports from the Tory conference: “Britain is the best country to be black in, says Kemi”

Today in Focus

Out in the cold: the spy scandal gripping Denmark

Claus Hjort Frederiksen, Denmark’s former defence minister, and Lars Findsen, former head of Denmark’s foreign intelligence agency, have been charged with divulging state secrets and face lengthy prison sentences. Harry Davies investigates why the scandal will reverberate well beyond Scandinavia

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Even though more than 600,000 people are released from prison every year, the barriers to re-entry into society are incredibly high. Former prisoners cannot vote, are ineligible for public benefits, and face extreme difficultly in finding and maintaining employment. In this week’s edition of the new series Our unequal Earth, Sonya Singh spoke to three chefs that used to be incarcerated and have now moved to the top of the culinary world and are trying to provide opportunities for other former convicts.

Chef Michael Carter, who is an executive chef at Down North Pizza in Philadelphia, has made best-of lists in the New York Times and other publications for his Philly-inspired, Detroit-style pies. Down North only hires formerly incarcerated people to give others a chance to build a life for themselves and has apartments above the restaurant to help with re-entry housing needs as well. “If we give opportunity to people, more times than not, people will rise to the occasion,” says chef Keith Corbin, who co-owns and is an executive chef at Alta Adams in Los Angeles.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.