Case study: Westlands school, Kent

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Our policy on mobile phones has evolved over the past few years. The key word is pragmatism. When pupils first started bringing them to school our attitude was: what we can't see, we can't confiscate. If we did see anyone using a phone, it was taken away and given back at the end of the day. Five years ago, only one in 10 pupils had a mobile, so the rule was easy to enforce; now the majority have them so we've had to adapt our policy.

Trying to hold back the rising tide of technology would be pointless, so we decided to allow them in school as long as they are turned off during lessons. Parents like the security of knowing they can keep in contact with their children and, now that the technology is available, they should be able to use it. What convinced me we had made the right decision was when we had heavy snow in March; we would never have been able to close the school as quickly as we did if pupils hadn't had their phones with them.

Our priority is to maintain an appropriate learning environment. At the same time as relaxing the rules, we've had to be much stricter when phones disrupt lessons. Now, when they're confiscated, parents have to come to the school to collect them. It's more of a deterrent as pupils may have to wait some time to get their phone back. They hate being without them at the weekend and sometimes come to plead with me on a Friday, but I just remind them that everyone knows the rules and, if they break them, they have to put up with the consequences. We find that we confiscate far fewer now.

We're also using mobile phones to counter bullying. In any community there are always going to be people who try to intimidate others and we're very concerned about creating an environment where pupils feel secure, which is why we set up a system called Safe Text. There's a mobile phone number that pupils can call or text to report bullying; they get an immediate response from a senior member of staff. When it was introduced in March it had a certain novelty value and was used a lot. We don't get quite so many calls now and a lot of the stuff that's reported is fairly low level, but the important thing is that pupils know there's always someone available if they feel threatened or if they just need to talk. It helps create a culture of safety.

Luckily we've had no "happy slapping" incidents. When camera phones first started to become popular we made it clear they weren't allowed in school.

Now most phones have cameras so the rule is impossible to enforce. Instead we've concentrated on educating pupils about responsible use. It's one of the things I talk about in assemblies. We've also heavily promoted the phone safety information from the Amanda "Milly" Dowler charity, such as the "Teach UR Mum 2 TXT" material.

As a specialist school for maths and computing, it's important that we think about the educational potential of new technologies. We don't see mobiles as a threat, but as an opportunity waiting to be harnessed. It would be brilliant to get pupils doing something practical with their phones, such as taking pictures on a geography field trip. We've also been moving towards using them for administration, although when it comes to contacting parents, email or landlines are often more reliable. There's a 90 per cent chance that a landline number given to you at the beginning of the school year will be the same at the end, but we often find that what was Dad's mobile phone in September belongs to Uncle Pete's second cousin by July. Our school is spread over a large site and we're increasingly using mobiles as a means of contacting senior staff. It's a bit ironic that most of us aren't exactly adept at using them. My own phone is quite a basic model and I could probably do with some texting lessons myself.

Jon Whitcombe is headteacher of the Westlands school, Sittingbourne, Kent.

He was talking to Caroline Roberts

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