Banning mobile phones in Victoria’s schools

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Earlier this week, James Merlino, education minister for the Australian state of Victoria, announced plans to ban mobile phones in schools. With a few exceptions, from the start of 2020, students will need to keep their phones in a school locker during the school day. The aim is to curb classroom distraction and cyberbullying.

We introduced a similar policy at my school in January and I believe it has been a great success.

Nevertheless, some commentators have expressed caution. Writing in The Conversation, Neil Selwyn, a professor at Monash University, suggested that all digital devices such as laptops and iPads can be sources of distraction in the classroom and not just phones. He also pointed to the 2006 ban on mobile phones in New York schools that was reversed in 2015 by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Perhaps enforcing a ban would be unworkable?

These concerns have been echoed by a number of academics and consultants on Twitter.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that teachers have a practical perspective on these kinds of policies that is sometimes lost in the wider discussion. Yes, laptops and iPads have the potential to be distracting, but they cannot be as easily hidden under a table or in a pocket. This is particularly relevant to issues of bullying and harassment. It is far easier to use a phone to snap a fellow student or a teacher without consent and post it on social media than to do this with a laptop.

I remember standing in the school grounds in London one lunchtime. I was on duty, supervising students, when a fight broke out. Quickly, the belligerents were surrounded by other students taking pictures on their phones. Most worrying of all were those who started text-messaging older brothers and relations, urging them to come to the school. In London, as I suspect is also the case in Melbourne, fights rarely take place in a vacuum. Instead, they are part of a wider interconnected web of affiliations and gang activity. The ability to livestream the schoolyard and ask for reinforcements enables incidents to escalate quickly.

It is unlikely that a student would see a fight, open up a laptop they just happened to be carrying around and send an email to a relative.

And I’m not sure that the New York ban and the Victorian ban can be so readily compared. In New York, it appears that students were banned from bringing phones onto the school site at all, whereas in Victoria they will be asked to leave them in lockers. In New York, this policy led to students either paying to store their phones in grocery stores or with enterprising van owners, or not taking their phones with them on their journey to school at all. This is how we can make sense of de Blasio’s comment that, “Parents should be able to call or text their kids. That’s something Chirlane and I felt ourselves when Chiara took the subway to high school in another borough each day, and we know it’s a sentiment parents across this city share.”

Nobody is suggesting that Victorian students should be prevented from having phones as they travel to and from school.

And if we really think the Victorian plans are unworkable because the ban cannot be enforced then this points to some pretty big problems in our schools. Would you really want to send your child to a school that is incapable of enforcing a policy of phones being kept in lockers during the school day? What other policies is this school incapable of enforcing? Will your child be safe in such an environment?

I am sure that there are some schools that will struggle because they do not have the culture and the systems in place. However, this does not mean we should abandon these plans, it means we should help these schools in building better cultures and more robust behaviour policies.

If we look up from our phones for a minute, this issue can be seen in the context of a wider debate. It is a debate between those who prioritise an orderly, safe and respectful school environment and those who are ideologically opposed to telling children what to do. Some of the latter would characterise the former as conservative or authoritarian but this is crass and simplistic. Thoughtful politicians, such as Labor’s James Merlino, listen to teachers and enact pragmatic policies with the best interests of students in mind.

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8 thoughts on “Banning mobile phones in Victoria’s schools

  1. Tempe says:

    One of the main reasons I chose my daughters’ school was because they had a no mobile phone policy. They have always been allowed to bring them to school but they must be left in their lockers or bags until the end of the school day. They also police this policy well & I heartily support the school. I can think of no reason why a student should need a mobile phone during school hours. They should be encouraged to interact with each other rather than a device for a change.

    I’m also opposed to the overuse of ipads & laptops in classrooms. Laptops are used in virtually every class so as parents we have no idea how much screen time our children have had before they even come home. I’ve been told that it’s a lot. Textbooks are locked away in the cupboards, so instead of students actually being able to read good content on a subject written by an expert in the field they are forced to go & find it themselves. I’m guessing this is related to some misplaced theory that they’re learning how to learn while simultaneously using their 21st C tech. skills.

    The reality is that they’r often doing nothing of the sort. My daughters are very open with me. The use their laptops for all sorts of things aside from working ie taking photos in class, listening to music, sending text messages, watching youtube clips and playing games. All the students do. I’ve quizzed plenty of their friends & they’ve admitted that their rarely on task or doing any work. How can we seriously believe that we can put a device in front of a 15 year old and expect them to work on their school work? Of course they are constantly off task and research backs this up. I think the teachers have just given up policing it.

    I oppose mobile phones in schools, and devices in primary schools and recommend limited use of lap tops in high schools. If they are to be used they need to be policed and research should be undertaken only after the students are very familiar with content taught via the teacher, not Google. Devices are distractions and don’t enhance learning and cause a multitude of problems so we need to ask why we make students so dependant on them.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      Even better, restrict digital devices to PCs with VDUs large enough so teachers can see when kids are off-message. Keep them in a dedicated ICT room. This is the Michaela solution–but it’s hardly necessary, as their teachers are always in full control of classes. Lots of direct instruction followed by closely supervised seat work. And the kids love it: we greatly underestimate the power of a knowledge-rich conviction delivered by teachers who really mean it.

      • Tempe says:

        I agree. It would be best if they’re kept in a dedicated lab. My daughter is currently suffering from eye strain after all the laptop work, both at school and assignments, that she has been required to do. And she has to find the vast amount of knowledge herself. Is it any wonder so many children have to wear glasses?

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    For all that ‘authoritarian’ has become a pejorative word, our educational system is now vastly more authoritarian than it was even 20 years ago. When I last taught in a comp in 1999, there was nothing whatever to stop me from doing what I thought was best for my pupils, and I had full support of my HoD and SLT (to say nothing of the parents of my pupils).

    Now, It’s a peculiar kind of authority that insists upon strict enforcement of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child–schools have to conform to increasingly restrictive rules to ensure that their pupils are free to do whatever moves them. Edutainment sends a clear message to pupils: your teachers are afraid of you. A learning-free classroom ramps up boredom and winding up Miss or Sir becomes the only game in town. After you’ve read Terry Haydn’s 10-point scale of classroom climate, you understand why mobile phones are a welcome distraction–at least kids are fairly quiet when they’re using them.

    From the teacher’s perspective, there is now no greater threat to one’s career than a lapse in strict adherence to Child Protection rules–yet the great and the good who dreamed them up live in blissful ignorance of the real threat to children’s safety: other children.

  3. David F says:

    I don’t understand the complaints about enforcement. It’s easy: I see it, I take it, you get detention. If I take it, it goes to whomever is responsible for discipline in the school, which is where you have to go to get it back. Multiple offenses takes you up the disciplinary chain. How hard is that?

    • Liz says:

      Except the minute you take a phone or anything else off a child you become legally responsible for that object. And then if anything happens to it, you are personally liable for the damage. As a teacher I have stopped taking phones off students as I’m not prepared to pay up to $1000 to replace it if anything happened to it while in my care. I simply tell students to put it away – leaving them legally responsible if it gets damaged.

      I think the bigger issue is teaching children to be responsible and respectful …. whether it is notes being passed in class, emails, text messages etc, all of these things show that kids need to be taught right from wrong. The method has changed over the years, but not the fact that kids bully.

      • neil says:

        I think the idea of a teacher being personally responsible for a phone is easily overcome. Though I’m no legal expert, if you’re acting on behalf of your employer, implementing their policy, then they are responsible. And if you make it clear to parents that, if their child breaks the rules and their phone is confiscated, the school won’t be liable for mishaps, then nobody is responsible.

  4. Pingback: No, a ban on mobile phones is not a form of collective punishment – Filling the pail

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