The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Managing mobiles

Should pupils be allowed to use their mobile phones in school? We look at some of the issues

How would you feel if you left your smartphone at home and had to spend your day without it? Would you feel anxious if you could not use your mobile for some reason when you wanted to do so? Are you feeling a sense of rising panic even reading these questions? Then you may suffer from nomophobia. “Nomophobia”, a word used to describe stress and anxiety caused by being separated from your mobile phone, was deemed the Cambridge Dictionary’s People’s Word of the Year 2018.

Research commissioned by Royal Mail and carried out by YouGov way back in 2008 found that 53 per cent of Brits felt anxious when they lose their mobile phone, run out of battery or credit, or have no network coverage. More than ten years on, this number will be significantly higher.

A recent study – “Understanding Nomophobia: Structural Equation Modeling and Semantic Network Analysis of Smartphone Separation Anxiety” – published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, found that this fear is not about missing the device itself but about losing the gateway to our lives, whether this is access to personal photos saved on the device, or to friends’ lives and updates through social apps.

One might think that school-aged children would be far less at risk of suffering from nomophobia. However, the use of mobile phones is becoming increasingly widespread, even among young children.

For the Childwise Monitor 2018, children aged 9–16 were asked some statements about their connected devices: mobile phones and tablets. Three in ten children agreed with the statement: “I find it difficult to go for several hours without checking my connected devices.”

According to Deloitte data, among 16–19-year-olds, two-thirds (66%) check their phones in the middle of the night. Nearly a fifth of the UK’s 5- to 6-year-olds have their own mobile phone. By age 11, nine in ten have their own phone (91%), with no difference between boys and girls (Childwise Monitor 2018).

Childwise’s Research Director Simon Leggett says: “When children make the transition from primary to secondary, they have to balance increased independence with a need to maintain contact with parents and friends. For instance their journey to school may be longer, friends they had at primary may end up at different high schools, so I think it is a reassurance to parents that they can maintain a level of contact to help through this transition.”

Netmums forum discussions on the topic suggest that parents feel their child should have a mobile phone for personal safety reasons when they start to walk to school unsupervised. According to research by YouGov, most Britons feel that at 10 years old a child should be able to walk to school unaccompanied by an adult.

Many schools will recognise the benefits of a mobile phone for emergencies. However, as well as making calls, most of these phones will now be used for sending texts and emails, taking photographs and video clips, playing games, updating social media, listening to music and accessing the internet.

Some educators suggest that digital literacy is vital for children growing up today, with mobiles being used for problem solving and creative tasks even in primary schools. Personalisation and choice is a cornerstone of Curriculum for Excellence. Using smartphones and tablets to learn and communicate is part of the modern student’s education, with teachers taking a new and important role in this online schooling.

Laurence Boulter, a former teacher, now consultant and Board member of Naace, the Education Technology Association, says: “There is an inevitability that mobiles will start to form part of education, and teachers are often in the best place to give appropriate guidance on their usage. Young people are not sitting watching TV now, they are using their technologies to learn coding or make videos. These skills can be an asset to education. The dangers of cyber-bullying and other challenges do need to be dealt with – allowing mobiles into schools without preparing the curriculum for it would create further challenges – as without care the dangers can override the positive skills which technology literate pupils can bring to our schools.”

St Catherine’s College, Armagh, won a 2018 ICT Excellence Award for Northern Ireland schools for using smartphones as part of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy. The judging panel said BYOD had been successfully implemented in a controlled manner, with staff displaying a poster to indicate that smartphones could be used, or not, as part of this policy. Accordingly, 80 per cent of the students use their own smartphones in lessons for learning purposes.

Noeleen Tiffany, Principal of St Catherine’s College, said: “In St Catherine’s, staff use technology expertly, confidently and purposely in every aspect of the school curriculum, and through this technology is making a huge impact on pupils’ attainment. We strive to ensure staff are upskilled in the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning in the classroom, to support our pupils as digital citizens and to help prepare them for future study and work.”

St Mungo’s High School in Falkirk is a Microsoft Showcase School, chosen for implementing innovative practices throughout leadership, teaching, and learning. The school invested in netbooks for pupils’ use via a faculty booking system and uses mobiles in classes as part of a BYOD policy.

Headteacher Stephen Phee says: “Mobiles are one part of our ICT strategy. They are used in lessons with the teachers’ permission, not in the corridors or stairwells in case there are accidents as pupils move about the school, and the teachers are very much in control – rather than sitting behind a desk they are walking around the classroom engaging and supporting the pupils. Via the wifi network, Falkirk Council can also tell us if a pupil has accessed a concerning website and we can address the issue.”

Banning mobiles

In contrast, students have been banned from using mobiles in schools across France. A new law has been passed which requires that children up to the age of 15 will now have to leave their phones at home or switch them off.

Education minister Jean- Michel Blanquer said the law aimed to help children focus on lessons, to socialise better and to reduce social media use. It is also designed to fight online bullying and prevent thefts or violence in school.

Dorothy MacGinty, principal at Kilgraston girls’ school in Bridge of Earn, has attracted significant media coverage since introducing a mobile phone ban late last year. She has noticed improvements in her pupils’ social skills including eye contact and conversation since the ban.

Many parents and teachers would support such a move, citing disruption in class and more serious misuse such as bullying and harassment of children and staff.

Nearly four in ten (39%) teachers who responded to a survey of teachers conducted by the NASUWT into pupil wellbeing are aware of students being sexually harassed by other pupils. Seventy per cent are aware of pupils being bullied online or via mobile phone outside the school day.

A poll on The Courier’s website found that 89 per cent of respondents thought pupils should be banned from accessing mobile phones during school hours.

In the UK, schools are expected to have their own policy clarifying the school’s position on the bringing of and use of mobile phones. Many secondary schools have a policy on usage suggesting that pupils keep their phones in their bags unless they are required for learning and teaching activities or to check timetables.

The Scottish Government has stated that it is “unreasonable and impractical to attempt to impose a ban on mobile devices in schools”. Its Guidance on Developing Policies to Promote the Safe and Responsible Use of Mobile Technology in Schools aims to “encourage schools to positively embrace mobile technology to enhance learning now and in the future whilst helping them protect staff, children and young people from possible harmful consequences of misuse”.

This guidance advises that “policies on mobile technology must be rooted within existing positive relationships and behaviour policies” – for example, cyber-bullying should be embedded into anti-bullying policies. Stephen Phee says: “It is an issue that a child could face at any time and we have to teach them appropriate mobile use as well as making them aware of the dangers. We also run seminars and give advice and support to help parents support their children.”

It might seem that modern technologies have significantly increased the opportunities for inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour in schools. Conservative East Renfrewshire MP Paul Masterton is currently calling for the UK Government to tackle cyberbullying after a pupil from Eastwood High School took his own life having been the victim of bullying on social media and his mobile phone. Some MSPs have also called for Scottish Parliament to investigate banning the use of mobile phones in schools to tackle the issue of pupils taking sexual pictures of teachers and schoolgirls.

NASUWT says schools should be places of safety for pupils and staff alike; there needs to be improved guidance. Jane Peckham, National Official, said: “Schools require robust and effective advice on tackling the abuse of technology. NASUWT has therefore been calling for improved guidance for schools in light of increased advancements and use of technology, to help deal with issues when they arise and to support the development of whole school approaches to ethos and culture which promote healthy and respectful relationships.”

Appropriate mobile use

According to the UK Safer Internet Centre, denying access to technology may even exacerbate problems: “When we asked a group of pupils about why they wouldn’t tell someone if they were being cyberbullied, their main response was that they were worried the technology that they love and use on a daily basis would be taken away from them.”

Donna Vaughan, e-learning consultant and Vice Chair of the Board of Naace points out that parents are vital role models for their children. “Parents of primary children will almost certainly be mobile users but what is the example that they set to their children? It is evident that some are continually drawn to the ping of social media notifications. To combat this, some primary schools have now adopted a ‘no mobile phone policy for parents collecting young children at home time!’ The purpose is to encourage parents to prioritise their attention on their offspring and ensure that they listen and interact. It is important that this good practice is encouraged.”

Donna says that embedding effective use of mobile technologies in lessons can help reverse some of the negative experiences outside of school. “Students are excited by technology and many will seize opportunities given to them to use it purposefully to extend their creativity and collaborative working skills. Schools have reported that pupils are more engaged and take ownership of their own learning. Using personal devices aids learning between home and school to become seamless.”

She advises that the introduction of BYOD is not something that schools can do overnight; it requires careful planning and a close review of the school’s behaviour for learning policy, as well as evaluation and review of the impact on learning. “There is evidence that pupils do use them to connect outside of school to support their learning, so schools have opportunity to play a vital role in reinforcing positive and appropriate use.”

Stephen Phee agrees: “They are an extra limb for young people. But schools need to have the IT support and monitoring capabilities and to talk to the pupils and teachers about what they are introducing and why. Our teaching has been revolutionised.”