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Why the government's mobile phone 'crackdown' rings false

Sophie Kitson
March 13, 2024

On 19 February 2024, the Department for Education published a press release announcing that the Government had launched a ‘‘crackdown on mobile phones in schools’’. This follows the long-standing parliamentary debate on school mobile phone policies that has been a point of contention since as far back as 2007. But how will this ‘crackdown’ impact pupils and teachers in schools today?

Ministers calling for a ban often quote research showing that the presence of mobile phones in class can cause distractions for pupils (Dontre, 2020), and that removing them from the classroom can lead to higher pupil performance (Beland & Murphy, 2016). However, there is conflicting evidence on this. A two-year study in Denmark showed that the impact of phones on pupil performance may have been overestimated, with researchers noting that pupils can be distracted in class for many reasons (Bjerre-Nielsen et al., 2020). A study in Sweden also reported that a similar ban in Swedish schools had no impact on pupil performance (Kessel et al., 2020).

Another argument in favour of a ban on phones in schools is that it will help to reduce cases of cyberbullying, although there is limited evidence for this (Beneito & Vicente-Chirivella, 2022 p.156). Whilst it’s vital to address the increasing cases of cyberbullying and online abuse towards young people, it is also important to focus policy responses on methods that are proven to reduce cyberbullying – especially as phones will continue to be used outside schools. Evidence suggests that the most effective methods for reducing cyberbullying are multi-faceted and should include education and training elements for pupils that cover topics such as ‘‘how to use the Internet in a safe and respectful way’’, and ‘‘how to ask for help when in vulnerable situations’’ (Gaffney et al., 2019).

In addition, the new guidance says, “By prohibiting mobile phones, schools can create safe and calm environments free from distraction so all pupils can receive the education they deserve”. However, young people’s needs and priorities in terms of inclusion are not uniform, so such blanket policies risk exacerbating inequalities for some groups of learners. In our recently published research with Refugee Education UK and the Centre for Equalities and Inclusion at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) exploring the experiences of displaced young people, participants highlighted how phones could be an essential translation tool for pupils whose first language isn’t English, supporting their inclusion and access to education. The total prohibition of mobile phones in schools can therefore lead to a less supportive and inaccessible environment for this often-overlooked group of children and young people.

“Young people experienced stress and anxiety about lessons and exams because of the challenge of adapting to new systems and language barriers ... [They] suggested schools could show increased flexibility by letting them use their phones for translations... The provision of extra classes, permission to use phones for translation purposes and ability of teachers to act as translators were said to aid learning and inclusion.” - ONS, 2024.

This highlights the need to acknowledge and respond to the diverse needs of England’s pupils’, and that an outright ban of phones will likely not achieve the aims of the guidance: that all pupils receive the education they deserve. Taking away phones will mean taking away support in some cases, so it is vital that the government identify and provide alternative forms of support for EAL (English as an Additional Language) students.

Blanket policies risk exacerbating inequalities for some groups of learners Quote

The government claims that the new guidance will support schools in “making long-term decisions to ensure all pupils have world class education”. It sets out options for how schools can introduce a ban on mobile phones, that range from ‘No mobile phones on the school premises’ to ‘Never used, seen or heard (but can be kept during the school day)’ (DfE, 2024). The guidance also reminds teachers that they have the right to search pupils for mobile phones and have legal protection to do so. However, a recent Teacher Tapp survey across secondary schools in England showed that, by January 2023, 99 per cent of schools already had a policy in place that limited the use of phones in schools. The survey further found that the majority (80 per cent) of these policies include complete bans of phone usage during the school day.

The fact that almost all schools already had in place some form of the suggested restrictions has fuelled commentary that this latest guidance has contributed nothing new. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the new guidance was a non-policy for a non-problem. Daniel Kebede, the general secretary of the National Education Union, agreed, and added: this guidance will make little difference and is a distraction from the many problems facing education”. It seems many others in education feel similarly; that the guidance is nothing new and detracts from focusing on policy stances that could make a real difference to education as it is.

Looking forward, policymakers should show trust and acknowledge steps schools are already taking to benefit pupils. Policies should focus on novel interventions, including evidence-based responses to the increase in tech-based violence amongst young people (Cook, 2024), as well as policies that consider and support the diverse educational needs of all young people in England.

Sophie

Sophie Kitson is an Assistant Social Researcher in Public Policy at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research.

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