Phone Banning in Schools – Considerations from David Wright (Director of UKSIC)

06 Oct 2023 UK SIC

The recent news about banning the use of mobile phones in schools across England has come after many years of debate encompassing a wide variety of considerations looking at wellbeing, safeguarding as well as the practicality aspects of enforcing bans within school communities. Whilst we have highlighted in the past, our thoughts for both sides of the argument, we have often found that an overarching ban of mobile phones is not necessarily the most practical solution. Despite this, we understand why this guidance is being introduced and realise that the changes that will come, will likely bring considerable benefit towards the education sector in time. This will need to involve clear direction for professionals though in order for this to be effective.

Whilst many schools have already taken the initiative to enforce their own rules around personal devices, a universal, whole nation approach needs considerable care and consideration that address wider factors that may not be overly apparent at first glance. We have seen that technology can be used to support education and we have seen many instances of personal devices helping to increase student engagement as opposed to hinder it. We would now expect the guidance to clarify how schools will use devices under this new policy and address the following important gaps that will come as a result of this change. 

Policy, Safety and Ability

While it is not mandatory, a ban may sound like a simple solution but it is dependent on the school’s ability to monitor it, which takes time, resources, and training. Schools will also have to revisit their Acceptable Use Agreements and update accordingly along with their own policies such as their Behaviour Policies to ensure the new expectations are included. Schools will need to review their responses and sanctions as well and understand what exceptions will be needed.

Several questions are raised as well. There needs to be more clarity around what schools should do if they have already adopted a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) strategy and are managing it effectively, what changes do they need to carry out or is it already sufficient? Is it just mobile phones or does it include other devices that have communication options like iPads? What if these devices have been supplied by the school (for example 1 to 1 schemes) in the first instance for the purposes of education, are they now obsolete or are there exemptions?

There are a number of safety concerns to also consider (i.e. contact methods, support lines) as well as accessibility options for those students with disabilities. Technology can bring a lot of benefit and opportunity towards those who may have limited abilities and can act as an essential line for those who need support. Enforcing a ban may leave some students feeling excluded in how they can engage with learning materials and how they communicate concerns, so how can we ensure this support is not lost?

Parents will also need to be informed and guided. Many parents will most likely expect their children to take devices to school in case of emergencies, but more generally, allowing contact for the day-to-day necessities e.g. school picks ups. More clarity is needed whether this guidance points towards devices being banned from just classrooms/ breaktimes or if this is expected to encompass the whole school day from arrival to home time.    

Is Technology the Problem?

A point we have often made is that it is not the technology that is the issue, it is the related behaviour that surrounds it. As with many harms we see online, it is the result of human behaviour first and foremost. Technology may be used to facilitate a number of harms but to address the core of the issue, it is down to how schools ensure that appropriate behavioural policies are adequately understood and respected.

This guidance is expected to change the education landscape, and overall, we support the initiative. Despite this, we anticipate it will not be the quick fix solution it is being presented as…the devil is always in the detail. We encourage the Government to ensure these considerations are appropriately addressed and give schools further guidance on how they should approach many of the gaps listed above. In order for this to be effective, educators need to be guided throughout the transition period and ensure they can still effectively safeguard their communities without the use of devices, and if barriers are met, exceptions need to be clearly made. 

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