Though many debates in education come and go, there do seem to be a few that remain constant. The themes and topics which garner the most debate tend to include funding (whether in relation to per child funding, intervention funding or teacher salary), closing the attainment gap and workload (recently exacerbated by Covid, lockdown and everything which followed). Additionally, and something which is seemingly discussed on an annual basis, is student behaviour and how this behaviour can be managed. Debates about how best to manage behaviour have raged in homes, staffrooms, the press and social media for years, with some believing a no-tolerance approach to be the best solution whilst others believe restorative practice to be the solution.
Recently, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, launched a consultation on pupil behaviour and discipline in schools. With a heavy focus on banning mobile phones, Williamson explained that he felt mobile phones were ‘not just distracting, but when misused or overused, they can have a damaging effect on a pupil’s mental health and wellbeing’.
But is this focus on mobile phones really needed? With the vast majority of schools and colleges already having their own bespoke policy relating to phone use, is there a need for government to focus on mobile phones?
With the obvious dangers and challenges phones represent, the banning of them does appear to have occurred in the majority of schools over the last few years. The damage posed to student mental health from cyber bullying (not to mention the negative impact of social media) as well as the potential damage any device capable of taking photographs or video in any setting with young people can make, means that any government policy would likely echo existing school policies.
Students and parents have argued for years that mobile phones help to keep students safe. The obvious issue here is that this isn’t needed during school hours and this point seemingly supports mobile phones should not be used or available during school time. Mobile phones can also cause a barrier to learn, with students failing to develop vital soft skills due to a focus on phones during dinner, break and before and after school.
Some students and parents have argued that mobile phones can be used as an in-class aid to support learning. However, with access to suitable phones and/or mobile data for all students not always available, this can quickly draw a line between those who have and those who do not have the latest device.
These are not new points, and it is likely that the consultation will confirm these positions, and that relevant policies are already in place in schools and colleges around the country. Additionally, where any digital device is used within schools and colleges, there is little evidence to suggest they make a sufficient difference, for a number of reasons (staff training, accessibility, battery life, regularity of updates and others).
The concern is what is actually needed may not be given enough emphasis during the on-going consultation. What is needed more than ever, is education around mobile phones, social media and tech in general.
Over the last 18 months, the pandemic has led to some fantastic leaps in how we use tech and how we integrate this into teaching and learning. Despite this, the majority of the focus has been using tech in fairly one-dimensional ways, to replicate what happens in any ordinary classroom. Very little time has been put aside to properly educate students on how they can work smarter, and not just complete more work. The purpose of technology, from email to mobile phones, is surely to speed up or eliminate needless process, not provide opportunities for more work.
And this is where we need to be smarter.
Over the past decade, the coining of the phrase ‘fake news’ has been pivotal in all areas of politics and beyond. Social media has played a key role in the spread of what has been termed fake news and continues to threaten democracy and the distribution of reliable information. From videos on Facebook to false stories on Twitter, this should be the real focus around phones and phone use, not whether they should be banned.
As we return to our classrooms in the coming year, technology is likely to play an even greater part in education and how we teach and learn, and social media will undoubtedly play a part in this (because it is too big not to). With this in mind, we must begin to teach and safeguard against the challenges that social media creates and support students to identify and critically evaluate everything that they see on social media.
Whatever role mobile phones play in school and colleges in 2021/22, it is vital that we prepare students for the challenges that they pose within and outside of schools and school life.
About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of English and maths at Tyne Coast College. He has previously worked as an English teacher and Head of Department in KS3/4 and tweets @jonnykayteacher . He also regularly blogs at www.thereflectiveteacher.co.uk.