I’ve never been a fan of banning things in schools. Naturally, there are moral wrongs or illegalities we can never accept: bullying, intolerance of every sort, alcohol, sex and drugs for a start.
But I’ve always been cautious when dealing with things that are, well, irritating more than anything else. For example, I never banned snowballs, to the chagrin of some colleagues. The temptation to children to enjoy that seasonal phenomenon is irresistible. Better to control it as far as possible, ensure it’s not used as a cover for bullying or victimisation and – once snow becomes icy and hazardous – call a halt.
Predictably, perhaps, I can’t let President Macron’s proposal to ban mobile phones from French schools pass without comment. It made headlines. Giles Whittell, chief leader writer at The Times, went for it in a big way on Tuesday, applauding M Macron’s “progressive” leadership and asserting that, “A blanket phone ban might be just what French schools need...That it couldn’t happen in Britain is entirely our loss”.
It couldn’t happen in Britain, he implies, because the current “failing Conservative government is desperate to ingratiate itself with the teenagers who will be first-time voters at the next election”. He also states that “educationalists and teachers’ union officials are telling the president he is mad".
Problematic and impossible
Far be it from me, a mere educationalist, to presume to disagree with The Thunderer, but we who work in schools can claim to know something about it. Banning stuff is problematic: all the more when it’s impossible. A wise and experienced headteacher, Jane Prescott of Portsmouth High School, wrote to The Times, observing that “children…get round such rules by either using other devices that are not technically phones…or quite simply ignore the regulation. Too much time is then spent policing what becomes an unenforceable rule.”
Amen to that! Life is too short to set rules in schools that we can’t enforce.
Of course I accept that mobile phones create myriad problems in and out of school. Not only are they potentially a distraction in class: they can also lead to bullying on a horrific scale – I note that’s the third time I’ve mentioned bullying in this piece – and children easily lead themselves into the danger of falling prey to grooming both by adult perverts and even by their own age-group bent on similarly abusive behaviour.
Phones out the bottle
But mobile phones – and a host of alternative devices are like a genie set free from its bottle: impossible to recapture. Better, surely, to attempt to educate – that’s our job, isn’t it? – and control, but not to outlaw what’s now a universally-used tool.
I applaud schools that promote acceptable use and negotiate with the student body about phone-free periods. In the same way, boarding schools rightly forbid the use of phones after a certain time – as parents should. But an outright ban dictated from the lofty heights of a president or leading newspaper is inappropriate and unproductive – and far from progressive.
What a shame, by the way, that nearly all the coverage of Macron’s decree centred on phones. He also suggested that every schoolchild in France should sing for two hours a week. When the arts seem constantly squeezed out of UK school curricula, in pursuit of an ever-more-utilitarian view of education, I congratulate M le President on promoting something so creative, positive, cooperative and conducive to wellbeing, except...
Except…this unrepentant liberal still believes in encouragement rather than compulsion – notwithstanding my passion for singing.
As for banning phones, King Canute demonstrated long ago that you cannot hold back the tide. Neither Macron nor The Times will stop this one.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is will take up the role of interim head of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire in January. He tweets @bernardtrafford
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