As students in the northern hemisphere return to school after a summer break, a new law in France banning mobile phones has generated worldwide discussion on the issue. French children under the age of 15 won’t be able to take phones, tablets or smart watches to school following a parliamentary vote in June.
The issue isn’t a new one, and here in the UK schools have come up with their own responses to the almost ubiquitous use of phones by their students. While a small number of schools allow specific uses of phones in lessons, anecdotal evidence suggests that the vast majority enforce some kind of ban or restriction: from no phones on the premises, through phones in lockers at all times, to phones allowed at break but not in lessons.
Few argue that children need their phones in lessons – they are after all there to learn not to socialise, digitally or otherwise, and research suggests that classrooms without phones can support greater educational progress. But we also need to recognise that phones are more than a social media device: children rely on them for telling the time, making notes, taking photos and of course sourcing information. The question is whether they can be trusted to do these things while ignoring their social media apps.
So the discussion is ultimately one about discipline and control. If children can’t be relied upon to use self-discipline then the simplest solution is to remove the temptation. Is it right for a national government to prescribe how this is done?
While a change in the law may give headteachers a convenient “I don’t make the rules” response to grumpy parents or adolescents, it does nibble away some of the autonomy that British school leaders have become used to over the last 20 years. Surely it is better to allow headteachers to weigh up the evidence, look at their own context, and then construct rules that work for them? What makes the difference in their schools is the extent to which those rules can be consistently applied and enforced.