A year on - new mobile phone policy at Robert Gordon's College

In a world dominated by constant connectivity, the idea of a phone-free environment can seem inconceivable to many, especially to a group of thirteen-year-olds. Take a step back to January 2023, Mrs Smith, Head of Senior School, announced a new policy for mobile phone use around school. A year on, she reflects on how quickly the positive impact was realised and shares her top tips for schools introducing a new policy.

‘But what will we do?!’ was the immediate response of a group of thirteen year olds when told that there would be no mobile phones on residential trips earlier last year. There was genuine bewilderment when they imagined the prospect of being on a bus/train/ferry/aeroplane without access to their phones. What would they do for entertainment? How would they pass the time? What if something happened? (with friends not on the trip - the FOMO is very real). There was also some parental anxiety, perhaps understandably, around children being abroad without a phone. The easier path would have been something of a compromise e.g. allow phones for travelling and collect them at night or allow access to them for a set period every day. But our experience of creating a phone free environment in school led us to stick to our guns. And guess what? They talked to each other (and us!). They played cards. They sang songs. They paid attention to their surroundings. As adults who work with young people on a daily basis, we inherently know that they need time away from their phones, from the constant bombardment of information and notifications, from the relentless showcasing of perfect lives on social media, from the pressure of snapchat streaks and group chats. And that’s before we even start to consider access to inappropriate and harmful content or online bullying. At the end of the trip we asked them if they had missed their phones. They hadn’t. 

Like all schools, we noticed post-covid changes in social behaviours. Lockdowns led to unprecedented levels of online engagement and numerous reports (including United Nations Children’s Fund, 2020 - from British Journal of Child Health) have documented the dangers of young children being exposed to cyberbullying or other potentially harmful content. What we witnessed on return to the physical classroom were teenagers who were undoubtedly addicted to checking and scrolling on their phones. It could be argued that this was a wider societal trend that was always going to happen and not attributable to the pandemic. However, regardless of the causes, this was the reality we were facing. The topic of mobile phones started to feature in all staff discussions, it was very clear we were seeing an impact on learning, on behaviour, on friendships. We had phone rules - certain areas of the school were ‘phone free zones’ but these weren’t addressing the problems we were encountering. Senior leaders and pastoral staff were inundated with screenshots evidencing poor online social behaviour taking place during the school day and spilling into home life or vice versa, teachers were reporting a deterioration in the ability of pupils to concentrate for any length of time, to read and follow instructions or process complex information. All staff were constantly reminding pupils to put their phones away. Like all schools, we have firewall restrictions to safeguard members of the community using the school wifi but unlimited data on mobile phones leaves schools in the impossible position of being responsible for safeguarding without being able to control the conditions in which we are operating. There was a collective feeling that we needed to do something about it and so we started a consultation which included speaking to other schools in the UK who had already implemented phone restrictions. It was very clear from this exercise that no schools who had brought in meaningful restrictions regretted doing so. 

Within a few weeks we had thrashed out all possible permutations of how we would enforce a mobile phone ban and ended up with the most simple and straightforward policy possible. Phones should be switched off before coming through the school gates in the morning and put away for the day. Any phones seen by staff are taken, recorded and handed in to the school office for collection at the end of the day. I was sceptical when Tom Bennett, Behaviour Advisor to the UK Government advised that, if executed properly, we could get rid of phones within a week. The reality was that we achieved it within three days. We are now a year down the road and the benefits feel tangible. We no longer have to constantly compete with phones for the attention of learners. Staff workload in relation to online behaviour and impact on friendships has reduced dramatically. Many pupils have reported feeling liberated and, because everyone is in the same boat, there is less concern about missing out. Class changeover is quicker and more orderly, largely because people are looking where they are going rather than glued to their screens. Break and lunch times are more sociable and the playground feels like a playground again. From a school leadership perspective, there is a strong feeling that we have acted in the best interests of the young people entrusted to our care. Do they like it? No. If we told them tomorrow they could switch their phones back on, would they be happy? Yes, absolutely. But we are the adults and it’s our responsibility to do the right thing. 

I know many teachers who would love to work in a school with a similar policy; they see first hand the detrimental effect of phones on teaching and learning. Colleagues in some schools have reported being covertly filmed and photographed by pupils in their classes. Schools have a duty of care to staff as well as pupils and this is not ok. France introduced a school ban on mobile phones in 2018. The Dutch Government has announced a ban on mobile phones and other electronic devices effective from January 2024. In the UK, there is currently no government directive but plenty of schools have taken the initiative. Interestingly, many of those who argue that phone bans are unnecessary e.g. ‘we should teach children to use phones responsibly rather than ban them’ do not work in schools or directly with young people. 

The downsides? Very few under-18s appear to wear a watch, instead relying on their phones to tell the time and thus providing a ready made excuse for turning up late. Also, 42 teenagers on an aeroplane with no phones resulted in quite a high level of (hopefully socially acceptable, sorry fellow passengers) noise. The challenges/negatives have been minor inconveniences, far outweighed by the positive benefits. When we first told pupils about the new policy, it was clear they thought it wouldn’t last. Their reaction could best be described as an eyebrow raise, accompanied by a sigh and a feeling of ‘let’s play along, they’ll soon forget about it’. I’m happy to report that they were wrong. 

Top tips for introducing a new mobile phone policy in schools:

  • Your policy needs to be context specific - think about how your school operates and what is achievable

  • Keep rules and processes as simple as possible

  • Communicate (explain and listen) with all stakeholders

  • Never lose sight of the reasons - explain the why. For us, mobile phones were impacting the quality of learning and teaching

  • Senior Leaders should take a lead and visible role in the implementation of the policy

  • The first few days/weeks are crucial - iron out teething issues and keep the policy high profile

  • Work out how the new rules fit with your existing behaviour policy