Leading article: Time to answer the phone problem

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The Independent Online

The strike by teachers at a school near Blackburn appears to be have been partially provoked by a ubiquitous technology: the mobile phone. One of the allegations is that certain pupils at Darwen Vale High School are filming teachers on their phones and threatening to post them on the internet. When staff confiscate pupils' phones for these offences (along with cyber-bullying and accessing pornography) the phones are returned to the children by the school's management team, undermining the authority of the teachers.

The staff, headteacher and local authority all agree that Darwen is not like the infamous Ridings School in Halifax, which in the 1990s was labelled the worst school in Britain after teachers walked as scores of pupils ran out of control. Indeed, pupil behaviour at Darwen was rated as good by Ofsted last year. The breakdown in this case appears to be one of trust between the staff and the head, who began her first full academic year at the school last September. It ought not to be beyond the wit of a competent education authority and board of governors to fix that.

Yet it is clear that guidelines are needed on the use of phones in school. Teachers cannot teach, and pupils cannot learn, if some children are behaving in the way described. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has announced measures to improve discipline in schools, restoring to teachers the right to use reasonable force to separate fighting pupils, to give on-the-day detentions, to search pupils for restricted items, and giving teachers anonymity in complaints to guard against vexatious allegations.

But new guidelines in discipline must also take into consideration the use of mobile phones by pupils to misbehave. Schools must be realistic about children's possession of phones. Thanks to a combination of parental anxiety and teenage peer pressure they are an everyday reality in the lives of modern schoolchildren. Creative responses are needed. Systems to check phones into pigeonholes at the start of the school day, or of every lesson, should be explored. The rules must be clear, and so must be the sanctions for those who break them.

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