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Ministers confirm plan to ban use of mobile phones in schools in England

Ministers have affirmed their intention to prohibit the use of mobile phones in English schools, providing guidelines for headteachers that some unions claim mirror existing widely adopted practices.

Despite certain unions expressing reservations, one headteacher has embraced the Department for Education (DfE) plan, asserting that it would empower schools to make beneficial changes for students, even if met with resistance from parents.

The non-binding guidance offers schools a range of options to implement the ban, including instructing students to leave phones at home, surrender them upon arrival, store them in inaccessible lockers, or permit possession with the condition that they are neither used nor audible.

The prevalence of smartphones in schools, with 97% of children reportedly owning one by the age of 12 according to Ofcom data, has raised concerns about distraction and potential issues such as bullying and social pressures.

Broader concerns about children’s phone use and exposure to harmful content have led individuals like Esther Ghey, mother of the late Brianna Ghey, to advocate for more action from tech companies. Ghey has called for restricting under-16s from accessing social media and for phone manufacturers to create age-specific products that prevent access to harmful content.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan emphasized that schools are places for learning and that mobile phones, at the very least, are unwanted classroom distractions. The 13-page DfE guidance underscores the importance of clearly communicating the phone policy to students, and explaining the reasons behind it. It also discourages teachers from using phones in schools unless necessary for work.

In a foreword to the guidance, Keegan stressed the need for consistency in practice, supporting headteachers, and instilling confidence in staff to enforce the policy, highlighting the current variability in how schools manage phone use.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, expressed concerns about the amount of time some children spend on phones but described the new guidance as “a non-policy for a non-problem.” He emphasized that compulsive phone use is not a prevalent issue within schools, where robust policies are already in place. Many schools either prohibit mobile phone use during the school day or permit it only in specific circumstances.

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Daniel Kebede, the general secretary of the National Education Union, echoed similar sentiments, stating that since most schools already have policies addressing mobile phone problems, the new guidance is unlikely to make a significant impact and serves as a distraction from other pressing issues in education.

In contrast, Vic Goddard, the executive principal of two schools in Essex, including Passmores Academy in Harlow, endorsed the recent imposition of a complete phone ban at Passmores. He reported a positive response from both parents and students, highlighting the removal of social pressure on students. Goddard believes that the guidance will benefit schools, acknowledging the challenge of potential conflicts with parents who may not fully grasp the risks associated with unrestricted phone use.

Tom Bennett, an adviser to the Department for Education (DfE) on school behavior, emphasized the ubiquity of mobile phones while stressing the growing understanding of their detrimental impact on a child’s social and educational development.

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