Should Stormont follow England and recommend a no-phone policy in our schools?

Leaving schools to make their own tailored phone policies poses challenges

School girl hides the use of a mobile phone in the classroom.
There has now been widespread talk that guidance on banning phones in schools will be implemented by other governments, including Northern Ireland. (Getty/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Department for Education (DfE) in England recently released new guidance on mobile devices in schools and prohibiting the use of them throughout the school day.

The same rules however do not apply in Northern Ireland with schools here left to make their own tailored phone policies posing its own challenges.

The guidance written in England instructs head teachers on how to ban phones throughout the entire school day, both in class and during break and lunch periods.

The guidance is non-statutory meaning schools and trusts are not obliged to follow any rules, but it is strongly recommended they implement a no-phone policy or re-evaluate any rules they have about phone use during school hours.

There has now been widespread talk that this guidance will be implemented by other governments, including Northern Ireland.

This has been met with multiple differing views including from the head teacher’s union. Different teaching unions in NI have pointed out that banning phones is not a priority compared to issues such as school funding, SEN provision and deteriorating buildings.

The teacher’s union does not believe a ban on phones will positively affect behavioural issues, but indeed worsen them.

With these opinions aside, there are different pros and cons to imposing this blanket ban across our schools.

We must acknowledge what an obvious distraction phones can play in lessons. Between students playing games and scrolling on social media, to the distracting sounds and vibrations meaning multiple students are distracted at once.

By using their phones during a lesson even for a few minutes, it can take much longer to get back to the same level of focus they had before, significantly affecting their understanding of a topic and may result in them missing out on vital information.

Having uniform guidance to send to all schools and institutions here will also bring a form of consistency to the issue.

Currently, schools are allowed to deal with phones at their discretion leaving gaps in the system and exposing challenges for both approaches hard or soft.

However, the assertion by the National Association of Head Teachers of NI that this is not a focus point and is unlikely to improve any behavioural issues should be considered as it comes from those with first-hand experience.

It may be difficult to understand why a government, comprised of individuals who have never worked in a school should be able to impose such guidance.

The English guidelines include that school staff should be allowed to search students’ bags and property to look for a phone which exposes a huge potential safeguarding issue.

Some schools are locking up phones during school hours with one school in Sussex charging parents £25 to purchase a safe lock bag for phones to be stored in which is an unnecessary fee adding to an already difficult financial period for many parents.

To ensure the effectiveness of a phone policy, greater input from educators is essential.

The policy should be adaptable, perhaps initially prohibiting phones during lessons or entirely in junior school, then adjusting as students’ progress to senior school, rather than implementing a blanket ban.

  • Seamus McGranaghan is a director at O’Reilly Stewart Solicitors