Just before the summer break I was invited to speak at a London comprehensive school in a mixed catchment area. Year on year, GCSE and A level exam results are getting better, but the headteacher is worried that most of her pupils are unaware of the challenges facing them in a fast-changing, competitive world. Young people from China, India, Nigeria and elsewhere are more motivated and determined to succeed.
She wanted me to talk about my life – how I grew up without much money, how education took me out of hopelessness and to a better future. The assembly hall was full. But within minutes, the kids were looking at their phones and texting away. Two phones went off – the ringtones were pop songs – and were answered. They all laughed. The teachers were mortified. What a waste of my time and theirs.
More than 90 per cent of teens have mobile phones, often top range. Younger kids have them too. They cannot live without this gadget. They must have it, winking, sounding, ringing, day and night. This is a massive cultural transformation.
I don’t want to sound Luddite and tut tut in memory of the good old days. Mobile phones have improved life immeasurably for all classes. But their effect on education has not been positive.
All schools – private and state – are grappling with phone disruption and distraction in classrooms. Now the Government has commissioned Tom Bennett, the Department of Education discipline tsar, to look into the impact of modern, must-have devices on behaviour and grades. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, opposes this inquiry: “Smartphones can be part of successful teaching and learning strategies.” Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, adds his own objections.
What bizarre responses. All schools have computers. Why does any pupil need to use a personal phone to learn, think, analyse or debate? Exhausted and irate teachers at the school mentioned earlier told me they were considering leaving the job they love because it is now becoming undoable.
The chemistry teacher said: “These pupils are here in body but not the mind. They go via their phones to elsewhere, beyond the boundaries of school, run wild in their heads. If we don’t do something we fail this generation. It is almost a mental illness.” And here are their representatives scuppering moves to reclaim pupil attention and education. Seems to me just a knee-jerk reaction by trade unionists who want to get back at this Government and Ofsted.
There is ample evidence now that academic results improve when phones are banned from schools. A research study by Louis-Phillipe Beland and Richard Murphy at the London School of Economics proved that a phone-less classroom improves performance, most of all for those from low-income families.
Then there are possible health risks. Though scientists have found no clear link between brain tumours and early phone use, researchers in Sweden concluded there was a higher risk of children developing some kinds of cancer cells.
Behavioural changes are also causing concern. The extraordinarily observant fly-on-the-wall Channel 4 series filmed in schools shows clearly how order, attention and discipline are undermined by mobile-obsessed pupils. In Educating Cardiff, on now, beleaguered teachers try to keep control of wayward, often horribly rude pupils, whose eyes and ears are stuck to mobile phones. They seem at times possessed by a technological devil.
Other, even more serious problems are becoming evident. Phone cyber bullying is endangering the well-being of pupils. Victims lose their concentration and self confidence. Many even self-harm or else have breakdowns.
A school psychologist tells me that boys and teens access porn on their phones during lessons and breaks. Looking at those images can be distorting and dangerous. This could be why so many young males do not understand what consent means. Schools have an absolute duty to protect these young minds.
Last month, Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools in England and the head of Ofsted, called for these omnipresent, said phones should be barred in all schools. Parents, teachers and unions should back him. Let’s all learn to say “No”, shall we?
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