Serious charge against mayhem of mobiles

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Ah, bygone memories! There was a time, not long ago, when a child's first long Latinate word was likely to be "con-fis-cate". As in, "Peter brought his cap-gun to school today but Miss Prunty con-stick-ated it from him. And she consticktrated Kevin's Batman comic just 'cos he was reading it in class."

In those days, Peter would be lucky if he saw his cap-gun before the end of term and Kevin's chances of ever finishing the Batman story were slight.

Miss Prunty, secure of her rights and duties, would give them back in her own good time, with no fear of grumbling parents. Everyone knew where they were, more or less.

Which is why, among my generation, there is increasing puzzlement and horror at recent stories about "cyber-bullying" of teachers via photo-phones, and about more general reports of pupils texting in class and rude ringtones. What? How on earth did we get to a situation where mobile phones were allowed in school hours at all? Let alone switched on? Did technology overtake us all that quickly, catch us by surprise? Did it coincide lethally with the general confusion over the extent of "human rights" so that heads fatally hesitated over whether confiscation breaches the "right to property"? And how can it be that even schools that pretend not to allow phones seem never to remove them? Why have rules you won't enforce?

Given parental worries about the journey to school, it is understandable that children have mobile phones in their bags. But once it became clear that a rule about switching them off all day was not going to be obeyed, why didn't all schools start to confiscate them the instant they bleeped? Or indeed make pupils hand them in at the start of the day with the traditional headteacherly cry of, "Since some of you can't understand the rules, now all mobiles must be handed in. See how a few thoughtless people spoil it for everyone else?"

I ask this question sometimes and get two answers. One is that removing mobiles during the school day would be a breach of children's rights, and that parents would be outraged. Rubbish. Museums make you leave your bag at the door. Oil terminals take journalists' battery recorders for fear of sparks. London clubs don't allow umbrellas in the dining room. Nobody cites them in The Hague. As for outraged parents, tell them where to get off and prosecute if they get threatening.

The other answer is that the handing in of phones would cost money (staffing, lock-up store and so on). Fine - make them pay. In a school of 700 pupils, five pence per phone per day would cover a couple of hours' overtime for the caretaker; or parent volunteers would do the job and the money could go on lockers. If children have to queue, so what? They could pass the time on the way in by texting mates, and on the way out by reflecting on the great human truth that every great convenience brings a small inconvenience in its wake. If some brat does hide a phone and start snapping teachers, confiscate it for the whole term, and face any court action with robustness. The nation would be rooting for you.

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