Around 90 per cent of secondary pupils own a mobile phone and, much to the annoyance of their teachers, many insist on bringing them to school. It's not just the lessons rudely interrupted by the latest ringtones that are a problem. Mobile phones can be used by bullies to intimidate their victims, and there are growing concerns about pupils using them to cheat in exams.
According to figures from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 1,013 penalties were handed out for infringement of rules regarding mobiles in 2004, a 16 per cent rise on the previous year. And the phone problem is not just confined to secondary schools. A survey by the research company Mobile Youth found that the fastest growth in ownership last year was among primary pupils, with eight being the average age at which they receive their first phone. So what are schools to do? With phones now so ubiquitous, is a complete ban realistic and what are the most important points to consider when formulating a mobile phone policy?
A losing battle?
Schools' attitudes to phones vary widely. Some, such as Colne community school in Brightlingsea, Essex, have successfully implemented a policy of zero tolerance. According to the school's assistant principal, Chris Brown, consistency is the key. "We don't allow pupils to bring phones to school unless there's an especially good reason. They are lodged with the school office during the day; it's a well-established rule that's been in place since phones first appeared on the scene, and the vast majority of pupils comply. If anyone is found with a phone, it's confiscated and has to be collected by a parent. This can mean they're without it for some time, so they don't take the risk. In the future, it may be that mobiles will become part of our educational toolkit so we'll have to rethink. But we're not at that point yet."
At the other end of the spectrum, there's Grey Court school in Richmond, Surrey, which tolerates phones as long as they are turned off during lessons. If a pupil refuses to put their phone away, it is confiscated but given back at the end of the day. Marie Smith, director of specialist status at the school, says: "The policy evolved over time and we've tried to take a practical view. As is happening in most schools, pupils were bringing phones in, so we decided to accept the fact and work with it rather than fight it. Our pupils come from a wide catchment area so mobiles are obviously very useful if they encounter transport problems."
If you can't beat 'em...
The mobile phone revolution has had benefits for schools, as an increasing number find text messaging a convenient and cost-effective way to contact parents. A number of software packages allow texts to be sent and received via a PC. Messages can be sent to individuals, to parents of a specific group of pupils, or en masse, such as in the event of early closure. Texts can also be generated to chase up absences, alert parents that an important letter is being sent home, or to remind them about parents' evenings.
Schools using such systems have found that there are significant savings to be made, both in the cost of calls and time of office staff. And parents often find it easier to text the school with short messages such as the reason for a child's absence. It also frees up landlines at busy times of the day.
A question of safety?
Many parents are happy for their children to have mobiles because they make it easier to stay in touch. There has been a growth in subscriptions to tracking services that can pinpoint the location of a child's phone as long as it's switched on.
However, evidence suggests that children who own phones are more likely to become victims of crime. Of the 700,000 mobiles stolen last year, almost half were taken from under 18s. This has prompted the Home Office to set up a website (www.outofyour hands.com) to warn young people of the dangers.
The site is designed to appeal to teenagers, with first-person accounts from victims of phone crime and a "How streetwise are you?" quiz. Road safety is also an issue. According to government statistics, road accidents are the biggest single cause of death among 12 to 16-year-olds, and a fifth of teenagers admit to either talking on their phone or texting while crossing the road.
Instruments of torture
"Cyber bullying" is a growing menace, with many perpetrators using mobile phones to threaten their victims. A recent study by the charity National Children's Homes (NCH) and Tesco Mobile found that 14 per cent of children had been bullied by text message, making it three times more common than internet or email bullying. Worryingly, the study also found that half of all text bullying went on in school or college. And, in a survey for a teen magazine published last week, nearly half of teenage girls said they'd received threatening texts or emails.
As with more conventional forms of bullying, victims are often reluctant to ask for help for fear of reprisals. In an attempt to address this, the telecommunications company NEG has launched Informer-tel, a general communications package for schools that includes an anti-bullying facility designed to preserve anonymity. Pupils can report bullying via a text message or voicemail. The system immediately deletes their number and scrambles voice messages so they can choose whether to be identified.
What about camera phones?
Almost three-quarters of new phones have built-in camera technology. With small, discreet cameras it's possible to take photographs or videos without the knowledge or consent of the subject and images can easily be forwarded to other phones or websites. The NCH study found that one in 10 young people had been the victim of bullying carried out using a camera phone.
There is also growing concern about the craze known as "happy slapping", where random assaults are videoed and shared between phones. Children's charities are also concerned that the ease with which pictures can be posted on websites may attract paedophiles. As a result, even schools that have previously been tolerant of phones are starting to reconsider. Marie Smith of Grey Court says: "It's made clear to pupils that they shouldn't take pictures in school, but it's becoming very difficult to enforce the rule. The technology is moving forward all the time and it's hard to keep pace. Now, with phones that can access the internet, we're also concerned about what pupils may be downloading at lunchtime. We're planning a review of our policy."
Misuse of camera phones is an issue that mobile phone companies are also starting to take seriously. O2 has produced a leaflet aimed at teenagers entitled "Sensible use of camera phones" and the Independent Mobile Classification Body has produced a resource for teachers, the B-aware! Mobile Phone Safety Project, which can be downloaded from its website. It includes case studies, clear explanations of the risks and an activity in which pupils develop their own code for phone use.
Other solutions are on the horizon. Interface Devices, a telecommunications research house, is developing a system that gives schools and parents control over phones via a website. Pupils register their phones on the system and schools can disable certain functions, such as the camera element. The technology can operate on a geographical basis, such as within school boundaries, or according to the time of day, so, for example, pupils could use their phones only at lunchtimes. It has the flexibility to allow some numbers to remain active for emergencies. The company believes it would work best as a government initiative, with all mobile phone companies signed up to the system. Spokesperson Jonathan Harrison says: "We've had the solution for over a year now and we've been in conversation with the Government and airtime providers about piloting and rolling out the system, but we've not yet received the support to take it further. It's a shame because this sort of technology could have nipped the happy slapping craze in the bud."
Can mobile phones be educational?
It's debatable that there will ever be a time when teachers are regularly asking classes to turn their phones on, rather than off. However, there have been some attempts to put them to good use. The BBC Bitesize revision site runs two services that can be accessed by mobile phone: a downloadable Java game with more than 150 questions covering English, maths and science; and GCSE Txt Bites which enables students to receive revision questions and answers via text messages.
Some work has also been done on using mobile phones for oral assessment.
The eVIVA project, funded by the QCA and involving Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab and Orange, has been piloted in 10 schools to assess key stage 3 ICT. Pupils produce an online portfolio of work and set targets for themselves. At the end of the course their progress is partly assessed orally using their mobile phones. They call a freephone number and a computer asks a series of questions; pupils can re-record their answers as often as they like and these are then relayed to the eVIVA website to be marked. A major benefit is that it dispenses with time-consuming face-to-face interviews. Camera phones could also be a convenient way of recording observations on field trips.
Cooking their brains?
Scientific research suggests that the low-level radiation emitted by handsets has a heating effect on body tissue and can alter brain activity.
The Reflex study, a four-year project funded by the European Union, reported last year that this radiation can harm DNA, potentially leading to cell mutations and cancer. However, the study was lab-based and it could take several more years of research to establish whether the changes observed could lead to disease in humans. There is particular concern that those under 18 may be more susceptible to damage as their nervous systems are still developing and their thinner skulls are more easily penetrated by radiation. They will also have a longer lifetime exposure.
According to one study, it's not just their brains that are being cooked.
Scientists in Hungary found that regular users of mobile phones had sperm counts up to 30 per cent lower than non-users, possibly as a result of keeping handsets in trouser pockets; even when not in use phones emit bursts of radiation to maintain contact with base stations.
In 2000, the government-commissioned Stewart report concluded that a direct link between phones and ill health had not been established. However, it urged caution as there has been little research into childhood exposure and further studies are needed. It said that children under 16 should be discouraged from making long or non-essential calls. An update from the Health Protection Agency published last January reiterates this advice.
Dr Grahame Blackwell, an independent consultant on mobile phones and health, says: "It's not just the length of time many teenagers spend talking on mobiles that's worrying. Research shows that their habit of texting with phones in their laps is also a cause for concern. Schools need to be aware of the scientific evidence and have a role in educating pupils about the possible effects on their health. If they're allowed to bring phones to school they should be encouraged to keep calls short, hold them away from their bodies when texting, and turn them off when not in use."
What about phone masts?
The Stewart report expressed concern about the effects of radiation from base stations and recommended that the "beam of greatest intensity" (the area around the mast where the radiation levels are highest) should not fall on school buildings or grounds. Government guidelines say that phone companies should consult schools if they are erecting masts nearby and should, if requested, provide information about radiation levels.
However, it appears guidelines are not being followed in many cases. The UK has more than 35,000 base stations, and a survey conducted last year for a BBC 3 documentary found that almost one in 10 schools have masts within 50 to 200 metres of their grounds, the precise distance at which the beam of greatest intensity is most likely to fall. Masts can be located using a sitefinder on the Ofcom website (see resources), and schools can apply to the operator, via their local authority, for a plot of radiation emission levels. If the beam of greatest intensity is falling on the school, the company can be asked to adjust the antennae.
Dr Blackwell points out that all studies on the health effects of radiation from masts have identified some ill effects. These range from fatigue and difficulty in concentrating to increased rates of cancer. He believes planning procedures should be tightened, and that heads' and governors'
organisations should be lobbying the Government for a 500-metre exclusion zone around all schools.
* www.outofyourhands.com is a website set up by the Home Office to advise young people on how to protect themselves from mobile phone crime.
* The Independent Mobile Classification Body provides a framework for classifying mobile content unsuitable for under-18s. The B-aware! Mobile Phone Safety Project can be downloaded from its website www.imcb.org.uk.
* www.stoptextbully.com is a website set up by National Children's Homes and Tesco Mobile to support victims of mobile phone bullying.
* More information on Informer-tel can be found at www.negplc.com.
* The Ofcom mobile phone mast sitefinder can be found at www.sitefinder.radio.gov.uk.
* MastSanity www.mastsanity.org aims to raise awareness of the potential health risks of inappropriate sitings of mobile phone masts.
* Texting advice for parents and children: www.millysfund.org.ukteachersteach_ur_mum.php