Policy to ban phones in schools labelled 'farcical' as 60% already do it

Policy to ban mobile phones in schools is 'farcical,' headteacher tells ITV News Political Correspondent Harry Horton

More than two years ago, then-education secretary Gavin Williamson claimed that mobile phones “can have a damaging effect on a pupil's mental health and wellbeing”, announcing his intention to “put an end to this, making the school day mobile-free.”

Those plans were quietly shelved by his successor but this week they are back - the headline announcement in current Education Secretary Gillian Keegan’s Conservative Party Conference speech.

She told party members: “Today, one of the biggest issues facing children and teachers is grappling with the impact of smartphones in our schools.

“The distraction, the disruption, the bullying. We know that teachers are struggling with their impact and we know that they need support.

“So, today we are recognising the amazing work that many schools have done in banning mobile phones and we are announcing that we will change guidance so that all schools will follow their lead.”

One recent survey in England and Wales found sixty percent of schools already ban the use of mobile phones, and schools in England won’t be forced to follow the new promised guidance.

A few miles north of the half-empty Manchester conference hall where the education secretary made her announcement, the head of St John Henry Newman Catholic College says he’s got far bigger priorities than mobile phones.

Glyn Potts told ITV News: "It's farcical that we've got this announcement today, the management of mobile telephones in schools is well done and schools understand their responsibilities within that sphere."

His school introduced a ban on mobile phones two years ago which the vast majority of pupils already comply with.

Mr Potts added: "What I think's missing here are some of the larger arguments around things like children missing education, special needs funding and recruitment and retention of teachers which is a far bigger concern keeping educators up all night than mobile phones."

Teaching unions worry the new guidance will be difficult to enforce or could face opposition from some parent groups.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “If the government introduces blanket bans that are unenforceable, this will make the behaviour crisis worse, not better.”

A recent survey by the NASUWT of its members in the UK on behaviour suggested that teachers’ biggest concerns were verbal and physical abuse.

The majority of teachers surveyed suggested poor social skills following Covid-19 restrictions had affected pupil behaviour – and a smaller number of teachers reported mobile phones caused behavioural issues in class.

Dr Roach added: “This behaviour crisis has become embedded on this government’s watch. The lack of joined-up solutions, multi-agency working and properly-resourced behaviour support are just some of the systemic factors making a challenging situation worse.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said they were concerned a blanket ban would not work “for all schools”.

He said: “Unfortunately, a ban on mobile phones in school can 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.”

The new policy costs nothing, requires no legislation and doesn’t force schools to follow it.

Critics say it’s meaningless, but ministers will hope what they’ve labelled a ‘crack down on phones’ will provide an easy win with voters looking for a government determined to improve education standards.