DURING lockdown, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has evidently had time to think and has re-invented himself as an educational visionary.
He warns that long periods out of school have worsened children’s ‘discipline and order’ and plans to launch a £10million ‘behaviour hub’ programme. A key part of the plan involves banning mobile phones in schools. He admits he has had to recommend a reliance on screen-based learning during lockdown, but it’s now time ‘to put the screens away’ and get back to good old-fashioned discipline and calm in the classroom.
Good luck with that one, Gavin.
Theorists and practitioners have been grappling with this for years. Mobiles, and especially the smart variety, have become not just popular but obsessional with both adults and children. They can make life and learning easier, but also pose huge problems. Advantages include enhanced access to research; personal security and contact with parents; social and multi-media learning; recording talks and lectures. But the downside is even more significant – cheating, plagiarism, misuse through bullying, sexting, accessing pornography and even luring into criminal activity; health concerns and behavioural issues; disruption of formal environments and a disconnect from the real world. Most serious of all is the slide into addiction, from gambling and porn to an obsession with ‘likes’.
Studies have shown that total phone use, in and out of school, can be a significant predictor of students’ impaired academic levels and that use in class restricts students’ comprehension and performance. This has led to some authorities banning phones outright. In France, China, Greece and Iran, mobiles are forbidden in the classroom, and in Australia they are permitted only for calls to parents. In the US, controls are inconsistent over different states, and there have been problems of legality over phone jamming and invasion of privacy. In the UK there has been no statutory ban at national level, but even by 2012, 98 per cent of schools had some individual level of banning phone usage.
Teachers agree that the technology should be amazingly helpful to learning, just like books, and science experiments, and educational visits and journeys, but also has the potential for disaster without firm and wisely-judged management. Blanket bans, if thoroughly enforced, deny any of the benefits and need autocratic management. At least they keep the lid on things.
But perhaps Williamson is on to a winner. His phone-banning announcement has been enthusiastically received by a majority of age groups and political persuasions, according to a YouGov poll. Overall, 69 per cent of respondents favoured a ban on using or looking at mobiles during the school day, even at breaks. This rose to 83 per cent of both Conservative voters and the over-65s. Only amongst the 18-to-24-year-olds was there (56 per cent) opposition to such a ban.
It’s no surprise that parents especially are in favour. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics found that banning phones had the effect of giving pupils an extra week’s tuition during the academic year; and looking at schools in four English cities, researchers found that test scores increased by more than 6 per cent in those banning mobiles.
Calvin Robinson, former assistant principal in an inner-city school, believes smart phones have no place in schools. He reckons pupils don’t need them and are better off without them. Apps on social media are unhealthy and designed to cause addictions. Material easily accessed on the internet needs to be constantly supervised by parents because of the risk of bullying and grooming. Schools should, and can, manage policies whereby mobiles are handed in before lessons and returned after school. This is essential for a safe and productive learning environment.
One group with definite views on restricting mobile use among children comprises many of the tech moguls in the US, who have called into question the effects of excess screen time on developing brains. For example, Steve Jobs had strict rules about screen use in the home, with a ban on iPhones or iPads at the dinner table.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and her Google executive husband also limit their family’s screen time. She frequently confiscates her children’s phones, especially on holiday, and insists that they learn self-control methods and ‘live in the present’. Reddit founder Alex Ohanian and his tennis star wife Serena Williams decided when their daughter was two that they would be imposing limits on her tech use, while Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel and his wife have limited their eight-year-old’s screen time to one and a half hours a week. Having grown up without watching any television as a child, Spiegel was forced to read, make things and think for himself, and he wants to pass on the benefits of this to his daughter.
Mark Cuban, billionaire star of the US reality show Shark Tank, has set up routers in his house to monitor when his children are using the internet and he is able to shut down all activities when they exceed their screen time. Even when the kids worked out how to get round his rules, he was able to intervene with even more specialised routers and take back control. ‘That’s the downside of having a geeky dad – I can figure all this stuff out!’ he confided.
This is all very well while children are at home in their parents’ care, which enables hands-on clued-up parents to impose sensible rules. But please note, Gavin – all this is on the parents’ initiative, and not a result of State intervention.
So it’s interesting to see what else Calvin Robinson suggests as a workable solution for both parents and schools. He makes a crucial distinction by his use of the term smart phones, which of course are far more than just phones. They are computers, cameras and gaming machines rolled into one, with a phone facility thrown in for good measure. Ban them inschools, says Robinson, and if parents insist on their children being allowed to carry a phone for security and home contact, give them a good old-fashioned ‘brick’ with no internet access and no apps. They’re uncool enough for kids to be very laid-back about handing them in.
Williamson’s policy statement has gone down well with the public so far, even allowing for the excessive and unreasonable cost of the whole package, but it’s now time for him to ‘walk the walk’. Parents will be pleased to have the support of schools in setting clear rules about mobile use and screen time, and enforcing them. As for the children – face up to it, Gavin, and accept the fact that the kids are just going to hate you . . .