The Department for Education is to consult on "how we can help heads remove phones from the school day", Gavin Williamson has said today.
While the education secretary acknowledges the decision is ultimately for schools, he has given a clear push towards mobile bans, saying: "I firmly believe that mobile phones should not be used or seen during the school day, and will be backing headteachers who implement such policies."
His comments are part of a new drive to improve school behaviour, with the DfE set to announce details of its £10 million “behaviour hub” programme, which it says will be operating in time for the summer term.
Department officials have identified the first 22 “lead schools” with strong reputations for behaviour and discipline to assist and advise other schools struggling in that area.
"We will help schools to develop and sustain a culture where good behaviour is the norm, reinforced consistently by all staff, and where pupils are taught how to behave well so they can learn well," Mr Williamson writes in the Daily Telegraph.
He said that remote learning had been "a tremendous success", but added that "the lack of regular structure and discipline" would "inevitably" have had an effect on pupil behaviour.
Mr Williamson's comments showed a marked change of emphasis from those made at the end of last month when he said “behaviour and discipline has really improved over the last year”.
While he then singled out pupils facing the front as a tactic to follow, today he was more nuanced, writing that parents would expect children to be in orderly "rows or groups".
On phones, Mr Williamson said: "While technology has been invaluable in keeping children learning during lockdowns and we support its use, it’s now time to put the screens away, especially mobile phones.
"Let’s be totally clear here. We are not talking about the controlled use of a tablet or a laptop in class, as part of a lesson; this is about creating a calm and orderly environment where everyone can learn. I know that parents understand the difference and they too believe the school day is a time for learning.
"Outside the classroom, the use of mobile phones distracts from healthy exercise and good old-fashioned play. Worse, it acts as a breeding ground for cyberbullying, and the inappropriate use of social media sites – such as anonymous Instagram accounts, where students are ranked on their appearance – which can heighten insecurities, damage mental health and encourage harassment. This is not something that we will tolerate."
The DfE's £10 million behaviour hubs programme aims to "help transform 500 schools over three years".
They will be advised by the "lead" schools on everything from setting clear expectations to "more systematic approaches to maintaining order" such as mobile bans and maintaining quiet corridors.
DfE behaviour adviser Tom Bennett said: "The hubs project is designed to start reasonably modestly, build a model that works, and then expand into a size and shape that supports more schools that need it.
"This has the capacity to make a real and substantial difference to the lives of futures of many thousands of children and families."
Mr Williamson said: "There is nothing Dickensian about a classroom that is a well-ordered, disciplined environment, where firm and fair teaching gives every child the chance to learn and develop at their own pace without fear of distraction."