The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) in the United States has garnered heaps of praise for helping disadvantaged pupils to achieve at school and go on to university. Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, cited the scheme as a "phenomenally successful" example of teacher-run schools and the Conservatives plan to bring in similar programmes in the UK.
However, a fundamental aspect of KIPP involves teachers giving out their mobile phone numbers to pupils as, according to founder Dave Levin, this helps to build links between school and pupils' homes. "When you do home visits, when you give out cellphone numbers, when you are accessible for people, it's easy to build relationships," he said.
But what would it mean for teachers if they were expected to be on call all the time? Teachers are already more likely to do overtime than any other profession, according to the Trades Union Congress, and a higher proportion work overtime compared with lawyers and health service managers. More than half work unpaid overtime and more than one in five teachers work an average of 19 extra hours a week.
"Teachers have a challenging and demanding job which they cannot do effectively if they are not able to have a reasonable worklife balance," says Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT. "It is ridiculous, impractical and unreasonable to suggest that teachers should be on call 247 for the pupils they teach. Pupils should not be given the expectation that teachers are on-call 247 - they have other adults, not least their parents and carers, who must take responsibility for them outside school."
Giving out personal numbers to pupils also leaves teachers open to abuse. "For the first MFL (modern foreign languages) exchange I ran, there wasn't a department mobile and I was informed that I was expected to use my own," wrote one secondary teacher on the TES forum. "I got prank calls for at least two months afterwards! Does Mr Levin think that all the pupils would be phoning us regarding genuine concerns?"
A survey by the Teacher Support Network backs up these claims: of the 539 teachers questioned, 44 per cent had experienced cyberbullying from pupils and of those 35 per cent had received unwelcome or aggressive text messages.
Communicating with pupils on mobiles could also leave teachers open to allegations of inappropriate contact. A number of teachers have been brought before the General Teaching Council for England for cases involving mobile phone abuse. Last September Christopher Reen, a class supervisor at Headlands School in east Yorkshire, admitted having an affair with one of his underage pupils, during which he texted her hundreds of messages.
Schools will have to devise a policy for mobile phone use to protect themselves, says Anita Chopra, partner at Match Solicitors, an education law firm.
Arguably, access to new technology and virtual learning environments mean the debate has moved on from mobile phone communication and schools should be setting up alternative ways for parents to get in touch with teachers directly.
Stephen Calladine-Evans, assistant principal at St Richard's Catholic College, Sussex, says many education professionals are already accessible outside school hours. "Many staff use websites to provide out of hours help and the email box is always open," he says. "The days of there being a clear dividing line between home and work have long gone for all kinds of professionals, teachers included.
"However, that does not mean that the dividing line between the personal and the professional should be allowed to blur."
It might have worked for KIPP, but handing out mobile numbers means that the line between teachers' work and their home lives will be much harder to define.
TIPS FOR TEACHERS
- Agree a policy with the school to protect teachers, and agree terms with all the pupils.
- Make it a disciplinary offence for a pupil to use the mobile number outside any agreement made for the release of the number to the pupil. www.matchsolicitors.com
- Don't delete any messages from pupils. You may need a record if any allegations of inappropriate conduct are made. www.teachersupport.info.