Scottish education: Pupils' use of mobile phones in the classroom is a challenge to discipline that headteachers must meet – Cameron Wyllie

Let’s be honest, I am very glad not to live in a country which has Gavin Williamson in charge of education.

School pupils should not be allowed to muck around on their mobile phones in the classroom (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

That said, I did feel a bit sorry for him recently when he suggested that he might consider, as part of wider disciplinary reforms, a ban on young people using mobile phones in schools.

The customary, and usually fairly understandable, coals of fire were then heaped on his head – headteachers and local authorities and teachers’ unions all saying that there were already ‘robust’ policies on mobile phones in schools and that it wasn’t any of his business. This latter seemed a mite strong given that, competent or not – on balance not – he is in charge of policy regarding England’s schools.

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It’s a complicated issue. Mobile phones are the bane of the lives of parents of say, 10-year-olds, as they begin to claim that ‘everybody else’ has one.

Arguments about the horrors of social media – sexting, revenge porn, old perverts (and young), straightforward bullying, constant scrutiny, being ‘liked’ – are legion and there’s no doubt in my mind that the phone, the tablet, and the laptop have all made life much more complicated and stressful for our young people.

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On the other hand, if I was the parent of a 15-year-old who was out late at night, I would be really glad they had a phone, and there’s no doubt that possession of a mobile has enhanced day-to-day communications between families and friends enormously.

That said, there are few sights more dispiriting than that of large numbers of young people in a school playground looking at their phones, when they should be interacting with each other.

And no matter how ‘robust’ the policies in ‘all schools’ are, teachers, parents and students know that the phone is an irresistible temptation, whether you’re supposed to use it or not.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently, who is a deputy head in a large comprehensive, and I tentatively suggested to him that the use of phones should be stopped in classrooms; he said that that just couldn’t be done.

When I suggested that headteachers could be issued with a phone-crushing device for the occasional public destruction of the devices of repeat offenders, he thought I was joking.

Really, in this, and in so many areas of school discipline, what is necessary is an effective sanction that is applied consistently by all teachers. Yes, I know that confiscating phones is fraught with difficulty, and I know that lots of parents jump at the chance to complain about school discipline, but a classroom is, in essence, a workplace and rules need to be in place to make it a safe and effective one.

Young people should, of course, be allowed to have a phone with them to use before school starts and after it finishes and, if the school is so minded, at break and lunchtime, but they should insist that phones are turned off during all lessons, and should have effective sanctions in place when that rule is disobeyed.

Of course, this is all part of a wider issue to do with the rights of young people. I was very proud that the school which I worked in won the highest level of the Rights-Respecting School Award, a well-established certification given by Unicef UK, which I would strongly suggest be seen as a benchmark in all schools.

One of the most interesting things about that process was finding out the Unicef inspectors’ approach to disciplinary issues. There is, and I have no problem with this, a lot of emphasis placed on ‘the pupil voice’, not just by the RRSA but in day-to-day practice in schools, admirably encouraged by the inspection process. It’s absolutely right that the individual and collective voices of the young stakeholders in schools should be heard and acted upon, often through the mechanism of pupil councils.

But, as the Unicef inspectors agreed, rights in schools are not just about that. They are also about the need to respect the rights of your fellow pupils, their right to learn, their right to mature and their right to be happy – just as, in ‘the real world’, our rights are constrained by the parallel rights of our fellow citizens. At its most obvious, that’s why we have laws – you don’t have the right to punch me or steal my doughnut.

However, sometimes schools, in a genuine desire to treat all their pupils equally and fairly, find it hard to get the right balance.

If the maths teacher has to spend ten minutes dealing with the bad behaviour of one individual, then 25 other kids are losing their right to learn maths for ten minutes.

If Sheena pretends to be ill and avoids school because some dysfunctional girls are bullying her, she’s losing her right to an education, her right to be happy, and her right to have an honest relationship with her parents. And if I’m sneaking a look at Snapchat in physics, and getting the girl next to me to look at it too, then the school is endorsing that behaviour unless it’s actually prepared to do something about it, and thus defend my right to learn physics.

What are generally called ‘low-level’ disciplinary infractions – talking, mucking about and yes, use of phones, waste literally millions of hours a year in Scottish schools, and all the money spent on those hours.

No child has the ‘right’ to waste their own educational opportunities, or those of others. Maybe it’s time for another look at discipline in Scottish schools too.

Cameron Wyllie’s blog is called A House in Joppa

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