Let school leaders decide mobile phone policy

Geoff Barton asks, hasn’t the Department for Education got better things to do instead of worrying about mobile phones? 

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article which appeared on the Tes website.

Call me politically naïve, but I’m guessing that the health secretary doesn’t routinely dish out advice to doctors on the best techniques for haemorrhoid reduction. And yet when schools minister Nick Gibb ‘calls on schools to ban mobile phones’, we somehow accept this as the political norm. When did that happen, exactly?

After all, the great mantra behind England’s convulsive educational reforms was that no-one knows better than leaders how to run great schools.

In his 2011 speech to the, once-proud, National College for School Leadership, education secretary Michael Gove looked his audience of headteachers in the eye and said, “You are 120 of the best school leaders in England – which means 120 of the best school leaders in the world. And 120 of the most important people in this country. Educational progress in this country has not been driven primarily by politicians; it’s been driven, generation after generation, by teachers. And especially headteachers. People like you.” 

Now, no-one goes on a smarm offensive quite like Michael Gove. His speeches are, in a twist on the John Lewis slogan, never knowingly understated. But looking back from a political age in which we crave leadership – any leadership, dammit – we can see the way Mr Gove recognised how lucky our children and young were in the leaders they had. And still have.

Yet here are the very same leaders getting lectures from Mr Gibb on banning mobile phones.

Mobile phone use in schools
This week I visited three schools: a boys’ grammar, a girls’ high school and a community school. In one day, I saw hundreds of young people, aged 11-18, and what they did is what they do in most of the schools and colleges I visit – they made eye contact, smiled, said ‘Hello’ to a person they didn’t know and treated me with courtesy and charm.

And, over the course of four or five hours, I didn’t see one using a mobile ‘phone.

Now, this wasn’t because a politician had mandated it. I’ll bet that pretty much every child had a ‘phone in their pocket or in their schoolbag – and I’ll bet that many parents will be relieved that they do. If they need to catch their child on the way home, if there’s an emergency or if a quick reminder is needed to pick up some milk on the way home, then a text message does the job.

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I doubt that there will be any school that does not have a policy on mobile phone use. It will have been carefully thought-out and calibrated, based on its professional judgement about what works best in their context.

Phones in the classroom
I know that many schools will look at ways of utilising this technology. They will have simple systems to legitimise young people using their phones in lessons to research, record, photograph and learn. All of this will be under the direction of their teacher, who will regard a smartphone as a helpful pedagogical tool rather than a form of technological contraband to be hunted down and confiscated.

So, I hope we’ll soon reach the day when politicians have the confidence to eschew easy headlines on peripheral issues like banning phones. After all, there’s plenty that the ministerial team could be doing at the Department for Education. They could prepare their case to the treasury to tackle the funding crisis that is undermining all the good intentions of the social mobility initiative. They could focus relentlessly on implementing the best bits of the new strategy for recruitment and retention. They could dismantle the parts of our overbearing accountability system that are undermining children’s mental health and leading too many teachers and leaders to avoid working in the very schools and communities that need them most.

Leadership, as we all know, is doing the right things. But it’s also knowing what not to do, what not to say and when not to say it – and, if you’re reading this on your smartphone, thank you. You’re here in the real world.

Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

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