'Banning technology from schools because of toxic elements in our culture will not make the problem disappear'

19th October 2016 at 11:30
Online behaviour
More positive use of phones in school for learning may encourage more positive use of mobiles generally, says a former schools minister

This week's editorial in the TES rightly focussed on the shocking rise of sexual harassment, including in schools.  I agreed with everything Ann Mroz had to say until the very end – until she argued for a ban of smartphones in schools, concluding that: "Unless they [schools] can guarantee a safe and respectful teaching space, they should insist that pupils’ phones be left at the door."

Ann's editorial was sparked by Eleanor Busby's extraordinary story about a "young design and technology teacher [who] has used the TES community forums to reveal how male students used their mobiles to take “upskirt” photos of her during a lesson."

This is not an isolated case, as ATL and others testify. It is also part of a rising tide of misuse of technology and social media, that too often displays an appalling misogynist underbelly to our culture.

Ann is also right to point out the parallels with Trump, the ease of access to online pornography and the treatment of rape victims. 

The problem is clear. Our society has yet to find a way of policing and enforcing decent behaviour online and this is perpetuating and informing the highly offensive treatment of women by some in the real world.

The debate is then what to do about it, especially in respect of children and schools.

I was at school when modern technology was calculators and digital watches. We thought it hilarious to write rude words using their red LED displays. The normal technology was the pen. These were used by some to write vile things about each other, and about women, on walls.

That abuse of technology was far less harmful, as the audience for graffiti was limited. Punishment was quick and sometimes severe. It didn't stop it but contained it in school, largely to the toilets. 

But nobody suggested banning pens. 

The graffiti was an expression of a sexist, homophobic, bullying culture that was pervasive in the 1970s and 1980s. This was the time of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Gary Glitter and others that dominated the popular culture of that era.

Banning technology from schools because of toxic elements in our culture will not make the problem disappear. It is much more important for us to find time and teaching resources to help us teach pupils how to respect each other, including respecting women. Statutory PSHE, for example, would help.

Indeed the very smartphones that the editorial headlines as "only encouraging stupid behaviour" can be used for pupils to make short videos, to give voice to revulsion, to build peer pressure and change behaviour. 

Could it be that an environment of trying to keep out the technology that is now embedded in an adolescent's life puts it mentally in the bracket of being a bad thing? More positive use of phones in school for learning may encourage more positive use of mobiles generally.

And then there is the issue of policing such a ban.

Schools that ban phones know that they are still coming through the gates. Even prisons are struggling to keep them out despite rigorous searching of inmates and visitors. How exactly do we expect this ban to be effectively policed?

And if it is, what else should we keep an eye out for. A simple web search for "camera pen" offers a £25.50 pen with a "DVR (recorder) high definition 1280 x 960P camera and microphone, complete with rechargeable battery." It looks like any other pen and could more easily be used for "upskirt" photos than a phone. And we can't ban pens.

Technology is not going away.  For less than 20 quid I can get a flesh coloured ear piece smaller than my finger nail, that could connect by bluetooth to a pen that holds audio files. The internet of things means that it is hard to see how we will be able to keep the internet out of exam halls in the next five years. Perhaps that means we should educate for thinking over content recall in anticipation.

The answer to this appalling growth in sexual harassment and abuse of technology is not to ban. We need to change behaviours and cultures. We need to disagree, as Ann and I often do, with respect rather than online abuse. We need education. 

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global, parent company of TES, and a former Labour schools minister. He tweets as @jimpknight

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