By Our Special Correspondent
Mobile phones should be kept out of the classroom and young people should be taught to “ration” their screen time at home, Britain’s minister of state for schools has said. Nick Gibb said mobile phones can be “disruptive” to lessons and he has concerns about cyber bullying. His comments came as a report from the United Nations (UN) highlighted data which suggests that “mere proximity” to a mobile device can distract students and have a negative impact on their learning.
And yet fewer than one in four countries have banned smart phone use in schools, the report from UNESCO, the UN’s education, science and culture section agency, estimates. In England, it is up to individual school leaders to decide their own policies on mobile phones and whether they should be banned.
Mr Gibb told the journalists: “I think head teachers should use that discretion to keep mobile phones out of the classroom. I think they can be disruptive to lessons. I worry about cyber bullying. But also in the RSHE (relationships, sex and health education) guidance we were very clear that teachers should be conveying the message to young people to ration their own use of their smart phones outside of school hours. Because what we can’t have are children being on their mobile phones to one in the morning and coming into school the next morning half asleep.”
The schools minister acknowledged that mobile phones are a useful tool for research and making sure parents can keep in touch with their children. But Mr Gibb also said: “I think there’s almost an increasing consensus that they should be kept out of the classroom.”
In some schools, pupils are expected to put their phone away in their locker when they arrive, while in other schools phones are allowed to be kept in bags but they will be confiscated if they appear, he said. The schools minister said: “We just have to be very careful that children are not spending hours on these pieces of equipment to the detriment of their relationship with their friends, being outside, taking exercise, doing their homework, talking to their parents.
“I think we all need to be very cautious in the freedoms we give to children in terms of their mobile phone use.”
When asked what parents can do to reduce their children’s screen time, Mr Gibb said: “I don’t have children myself so I don’t feel in a position to give advice to parents about their children. But in my own life, I do everything I can to avoid looking at the mobile phone after dinner in the evening and not looking at it again before breakfast. I think what we can do from a school level is to inculcate self-discipline in terms of the use of mobile phones so that children are aware of the dangers of spending too many hours on a screen, particularly late into the night and in the early morning.”
Earlier this month, the Dutch government announced that mobile phones, tablets and smart watches will be largely banned from classrooms in the Netherlands from January next year in a bid to limit distractions during lessons. It comes after France banned pupils from using mobile phones in primary and middle schools in 2018.
When asked whether the Government will reconsider its position on mobile phones in classrooms, Mr Gibb said: “We keep all these policies under review the whole time and we will look very carefully at the UN report to see whether there are lessons that we can learn.” The UN report on technology in education said: “Extended screen time can negatively affect self-control and emotional stability, increasing anxiety and depression. Few countries have strict regulations on screen time. Less than one in four countries are banning the use of smart phones in schools.”
The report – which calls for technology in education to put learners and teachers “at the centre” – concluded: “Student use of devices beyond a moderate threshold may have a negative impact on academic performance.” Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, said: “The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential but, just as warnings have been voiced for how it should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education. Its use must be for enhanced learning experiences and for the wellbeing of students and teachers, not to their detriment. Keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers. Online connections are no substitute for human interaction.”
Sarah Hannafin, head of policy at school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “A complete ban on mobile phones may work for some schools. However, in some cases it may cause more problems than it solves, leading to pupils becoming more secretive about their phone use, meaning problems are hidden from staff and, therefore, more difficult to spot and address. There are also practical reasons why pupils may need mobile phones such as while travelling to and from school. Schools help to prepare young people for the outside world, and this includes equipping them with awareness and strategies to responsibly monitor their own screen use and the ability to identify and respond to any potentially harmful content and the impact it may have. Individual schools know their pupils and communities. So, they are best placed to develop their own policies when it comes to mobile phones in schools, according to what works for them and for pupils’ education and wellbeing.”