New York lifted a 10-year ban on phones in public schools in 2015 to enable parents to stay in touch with their children. Photograph: Monkey Business Images/Rex
This week the French government announced a ban on students using mobile phones in schools, following through on a pledge made by Emmanuel Macron during his presidential election campaign.
The new law will allow phones to be brought into school, but prohibit their use even during breaks. The French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said the measure was a “public health message to families”. Though not everyone agrees.
In 2015 the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, lifted a 10-year ban on phones on school premises to “enable parents to stay in touch with their children” and “end the inequity under the current ban, which was enforced mostly at schools with metal detectors in low-income communities”.
The debate about access to mobile phones in schools is ongoing in the UK, where more than 90% of teenagers have mobiles. A recent study by the London School of Economics found that in schools where mobiles were banned, the test scores of 16-year-olds improved by 6.4% – the equivalent of adding five days to the school year, economists reckon.
There is no law in the UK prohibiting phone usage in schools and the Department for Education, the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers all say it is a decision for each school.
Policies across the UK are inconsistent, ranging from outright bans at some schools to the inclusion of phones as part of lessons in others.
Shiplake College, independent, Henley-on-Thames
Any pupil caught with a mobile phone on them between 8.15am and 5.45pm is given a detention. The headmaster, Gregg Davies, said there had been a significant difference in pupil behaviour since the policy was rolled out at the start of the year.
“[Before the ban] I went round one lunchtime [and] was just amazed at how many boys and girls were sitting, just communicating solely with their phone. I just felt, if we’re not careful, they’re going to lose the ability to socialise with each other.”
Davies said the school was clear that the mobile phone can be a “brilliant tool” in the classroom, particularly because it’s easier to carry around than a laptop. “But phones were vibrating when a text came in or an Instagram. It was distracting the learning.”
Students at Shiplake can carry phones on them if they are not seen, but most put them in lockers because they say the temptation is too great. “One of our biggest sayings is ‘choice, risk, consequence’. So yes they can carry their phones round, that’s their choice, but if they take it out they risk being caught.”
Initially, most pupils were against the ban, but six months on two-thirds prefer it, Davies said.
Fortismere, state comprehensive, north London
Students in years 7-11 are banned from bringing mobile phones to school. Since the ban was enforced in September last year, any student seen in possession of a phone at school has had the device confiscated.
According to Fortismere, one of the leading state schools in the country, phones “are a distraction” and there are serious concerns about potential inappropriate use. If a phone is confiscated, it is not returned directly to the student. Instead, parents are invited to collect it after 24 hours. Sixth-form students, meanwhile, are permitted to carry phones on site but should keep them in their bags during lessons.
Brighton college, independent
Pupils returning in September were weaned off their mobile phones with the help of Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly and Cluedo, which pupils were encouraged to play in free time instead of indulging in social media or watching YouTube videos, in an attempt to revive socialising without screens.
Mobile phone use by children in years 7, 8 and 9 is banned. Year 10 pupils have three days a week with no phones and year 11s one day a week. “Our strategy is to wean pupils off their addiction to mobile phones while they are still relatively young, gradually allowing them more freedom to use phones as they get older so that they learn how to be responsible users,” said the headteacher, Richard Cairns, when the policy was rolled out.
Pupils hand in their phones at 8am and can retrieve them at the end of the day. Sixth-formers are permitted to have mobile phones during breaks, but never outdoors. Cairns said he hoped the move would give parents concerned by the addictive nature of mobile phones “the impetus to follow suit at home and even in the holidays”.
Henbury, state academy, Bristol
On the way to school students are busy on their phones, checking social media, listening to music, playing games. But the mobiles are tucked away in bags or pockets as soon as they arrive at school. “Our policy is really simple,” said the headteacher, Clare Bradford. “We see it, we hear it, you lose it.”
There are exceptions. “If they are doing something in a lesson where the use of a phone would be handy – to take a picture, do some filming or even look something up, then the teacher may give permission for phones to be used. But that’s it.
“Some of the students say it would be nice to have their phones out at break time. When we did allow this we found there was no conversation. They were just playing games on their phones and it was really boring.” The ban on phones also ensures that online bullying cannot take place during the school day.
Students have mixed views on the policy. Thea, 12, said: “If they were allowed in the classroom people would be distracted and not pay attention. But at breaks and lunchtimes I think we should be allowed them. We should be given the responsibility.”
Detroy, also 12, argued that the mobile phone could be a brilliant educational tool. “I think we should be allowed our phones to make notes and recordings,” he said. “I totally disagree with the policy.”
Stroud high school, state grammar, Gloucestershire
The school is holding a “digital detox” week in January where students can choose from a series of challenges ranging from putting all devices away from 6pm to breakfast the next day to not using phones at all for seven days. They are being asked to raise money through sponsorship for a mental health charity.
The deputy headteacher, Cindi Pride, said: “We are not demonising social media and technology, [but] simply trying to raise awareness of the importance of control for users. We hope it will stimulate conversation at home as well as at school – in a year 7 survey at the start of the year, 58% of students felt their parents also spent too much time on their devices.”