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Mobile phonesWith France, and now Ontario, having introduced mobile phone bans in school, could the UK be next?

By Kate Hilpern

Ontario, Canada’s most populated province, is legislating against pupils using mobile phones in classrooms in an attempt to help them focus more on their learning.

There will be exceptions such as medical reasons, students with special needs and teachers who want to use them as part of their lessons. And although the province will issue a directive to all public schools, enforcement will be up to individual schools. But the premise of the legislation, which was a year in the making, is clear – mobile phones have more downsides than benefits in the school environment.

France has gone further still, banning pupils from using mobile phones altogether during school hours – whether they’re in lessons or not. Last year, a law was passed which states pupils up to the age of 15 have to leave their phones at home or switch them off. Only in emergencies can they be used. The French government said the law aimed to help children focus on lessons, to socialise better and to reduce social media use, as well as to fight cyberbullying and prevent thefts or violence in school.

Could the UK be next? Currently, British schools are free to set their own rules, but Matt Hancock MP has backed schools who do not allow mobile phones, claiming more heads should ‘follow their lead’. And in a letter to the Telegraph last year, a group of Conservative MPs said more heads should confiscate mobiles at the school gates.

Many parents agree, with one recent poll finding that 59 per cent of UK parents think students should not be allowed to carry their mobile phones around in school grounds – with the main reasons cited as fears of cyberbullying and children feeling the strain of having to have the latest device.

Plenty of teachers take a similar view. Just this week, one said to me, ‘Every time a vibrating phone disturbs my lesson, I feel like throwing it out of the window and every time I see students staring at their screens at break and lunch times instead of talking to each other, I just feel sad. But our school takes a relatively lenient approach towards phones, so my hands are tied’.

Schools that take a hard line on mobile phones include Michaela Community School in Wembley. If a phone is seen or heard here, it’s confiscated, with the school believing that they are ‘extremely distracting for children’ and that they interrupt their concentration and ability to think. Reepham High School and College in Norfolk has introduced a similar ban, although – like Michaela – they do allow switched-off phones in school bags.

The London Oratory School, which we reviewed earlier this month, goes even further, banning mobile phones from coming onto school premises, with the result that pupils aren’t even allowed them on public transport, despite the fact that many children travel some distance. Archer Academy in Finchley, a new Good Schools Guide school, takes a similar stance. Our reviewer wrote that pupils are ‘totally banned from taking smartphones to school. No screen devices allowed at all’.

These schools have some evidence to back up their claims. A study by the London School of Economics, for instance, found that banning phones essentially gave a week’s extra education back to pupils over the course of an academic year, with schools where phones were banned experiencing higher test results.

The Department of Education claims 95 per cent of schools in England already control the use of phones in some way, but we regularly see classrooms with phones on full display. Headteachers have told me time and time again that they feel that phones are part of the outside world and it is a school’s job to prepare young people for that world. Many point out that phones can be good educational tools and that they can be used to share ideas. Some say children need to learn to self-regulate their own screen use and learn to identify problematic content, which they simply can’t do if there’s a total ban. And then there are those who feel a ban just isn’t feasible or that it would push the problem underground, with young people feeling forced to use their phones in secret.

Strong views at both ends of the spectrum, then. All of which suggests a ban won’t be on the cards anytime soon. But watch this space. As young people grow up with mobile phones in school – or, conversely under a total ban beyond the school gates - they will form their own views based on their own experiences, making for a much richer, more nuanced debate that is bound to shape the next generation’s education.

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