What have we got to be scared of?

25th January 2008 at 00:00
More schools allow pupils to use phones. So why are the rest dragging their heels? Is it a question of control? Or is it fear of being shown up by techno-savvy youngsters, asks Jonathan Milne.

Like most schools in England, the Leysin American School in Switzerland had a blanket ban on pupils carrying mobile phones. Then, one afternoon, one of the pupils took a few hours off to go skiing. He ducked under a barrier, swooped down a virgin field of powder snow - and straight over a cliff.

Hanging from a tree by one hand, he pulled a clandestine mobile phone from his pocket with the other, and called for help. The school had a helicopter there within minutes - and a change to its mobile phone policy within days.

"Before that, we felt that cellphones did not belong in an education environment," says John Squier, the boarding school's director of IT services. "Now we issue all our students with cell phones."

Pupils carry them all the time, providing the school with an emergency response system, but also easy multimedia communication between teachers and pupils.

Later this year, Mr Squier hopes to try out Apple iPhones, which will provide pupils with a "scaled-down laptop" on which they can send email, conduct internet research, and take notes and photos, any time, anywhere.

The world is a fast-changing place, and nowhere more so than in the school playground. Yet many in education fear that the classroom is failing to keep up.

Young people (Lord David Puttnam and techno-guru Stephen Heppell call them "digital natives") are using the latest technology in ways that they never imagined a year ago. Most adults struggle to understand it now.

Lord Puttnam, chairman of Unicef UK and Futurelab, an education innovation think tank, warned this month that technology-savvy children were switching off and becoming "emotional truants" because schools were not relevant in a digital age.

While employers battle with staff addiction to social networking sites such as Facebook, young people have been using similar sites such as MySpace and Bebo for years.

And a few years ago scientists speculated - perhaps somewhat hastily - that teenagers might already be developing stronger, more flexible thumbs because of their constant text messaging.

We know all this. Yet most schools still ban mobiles, just as shopping malls ban hoodies. This is missing the point. Like hoodies, mobiles are neutral - neither good nor bad. It is, of course, their use that can be either constructive or destructive.

Why is it, then, that school leaders - who should be among those most open to engaging with things that motivate children - are still banning them?

The case for banning

There are at least four main reasons - and none of them is good. The first is children's health. In 2000, a government advisory group chaired by Sir William Stewart urged parents to stop children using mobiles to avoid any possible health risk.

The Stewart report acknowledged that there was no proven danger from microwave pulses, but suggested that parents should be cautious as children might be more vulnerable than adults.

Mobile phone signal power has since lessened and there remains no definitive evidence of adverse health effects. It certainly has not put young people off. According to the Institute of Education in London, 92 per cent of secondary pupils has their own phone.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families says mobile phone use in schools is a matter for the head, but it does defer to the Stewart guidance. "Schools may wish to take this advice into account when considering any policies on the use of mobile phones by pupils," it says.

Scientific debate continues, but there is no compelling evidence that mobiles are any more harmful than having a television in the living room. That being the case, it is extraordinary that heads would adopt a "precautionary approach" that is so out of line with the unsubstantiated nature of the risk.

The second reason for caution is also about the protection of children, but this time from potential predators. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, (CEOP) which polices online child abuse, says that where children go, predators will follow. In the past, that may have been a local playground. Now it is more likely to be children's online chatrooms.

But the CEOP does not advise banning mobiles. Instead, it urges teachers to work with pupils to help them understand how to use the technology safely and when to tell a trusted adult of any concerns.

Cyberbullying is a third cause of concern for teachers - and this time pupils are not the potential victims but the offenders. This problem is nothing to do with mobile technology, however, and everything to do with pupils' attitudes. Seizing a bully's mobile will only shift the problem elsewhere. Addressing the reasons why he or she bullies might actually solve the problem.

And this brings us to the most important reason why schools ban mobile phones: class control. Teachers are nervous because pupils are more familiar with new technology than they are. They fear that pupils are "passing notes" at the back of the class. Just as schools banned ballpoint pens, then pocket calculators, so it is with mobile phones: the fear of the new.

Let's embrace them?

A growing minority of teachers and heads are not only allowing pupils to bring mobiles to class, but also working to integrate them into the teaching and learning process.

Futurelab, where Lord Puttnam is chairman, has been developing mobile phone software for physics and geography lessons and piloted one of the systems at Cotham school in Bristol.

Teachers there were more concerned about jealousy - pupils vying for the latest, flashiest phone - than they were about classroom management or health risks.

Etech, whose Studywiz digital learning platform is used in more than 100 schools, is increasingly enabling its software to be used on handheld devices. Teachers and pupils can access their school work and records on iPhones through the latest version, and the company has funding to extend it to other types of mobile phones.

"These technologies are integral to children's lives, and all the evidence shows that by using them we can help students engage," says Geoff Elwood, chief executive of Etech.

Heinemann, the educational publisher, last week issued a GCSE maths quiz that can be downloaded to mobile phones, somewhat optimistically describing it as "an indispensible revision tool for students".

Lee Harris, headteacher of Blakewater College in Blackburn, Lancashire, takes a pragmatic approach to mobiles. "Pupils are allowed to have a mobile, so long as we have their numbers," he says. "One of the ways I get the kids off the sports field at the end of the lunch hour is by sending them all a text message."

Mobile phones allow Mr Harris to combat both Lord Puttnam's "emotional truancy" and real, old-fashioned physical truancy.

If a pupil is running late for school, the first thing Blakewater's staff do is text them.

"If they're sloping slowly up the street, a texted 'Where are ya?' hurries them up," says Mr Harris.

Only if that fails do they then contact the parents.

He is hoping to combine mobile phones with an active voting system, so pupils can contribute to lessons through their phones rather than purpose-built voting handsets.

That would allow them to vote or give answers in class. "Putting up their hands, they're affected by peer pressure. This way, they could text a comment directly on to the whiteboard, or privately tell the teacher that they need help."

The school leadership team is discussing buying a pool of mobiles that they can lend to pupils who do not have one, if they need it for a school project. But most pupils already have one - or more.

As part of the school's rewards system, pupils can get text message credits for their personal mobiles.

"Soon, texts will cost nothing for them," Mr Harris says. "At that point, we can integrate mobiles into teaching and learning."

"Technology is changing so quickly that we don't know what's coming next. So rather than teaching pupils how to use pieces of technology, we need to teach them how to adapt to a technological world. It's part of our educational responsibility."

- www.europe.studywiz.com


- Although there is no conclusive evidence that mobiles pose a health risk, it is best to be cautious.

- Mobiles make children vulnerable to online sexual predators.

- Mobiles enable children to engage in cyberbullying.

- Classes are easier to manage if pupils are not surreptitiously texting each other.


- Pupils are able to contact someone if hurt or in trouble.

- Technology engages and inspires pupils, especially boys.

- Teachers are able to contact pupils to oversee their progress.

- Pupils will live and work in a 21st-century world that demands increasing technological know-how.


It's like walking in a minefield

In inner-city Newcastle-upon-Tyne, many children have money only for the essentials of life. One of these, says Steve Gater, is a mobile phone. More than nine out of 10 pupils at Walker Technology College, where he is head, carry one, but they are required to switch them off in most classes.

Because mobiles are such a critical part of their lives outside school, Mr Gater (right) is working to integrate them. Already, one maths teacher is recording his lessons so pupils can upload them to their video-phones.

An English teacher asked Year 7 pupils to record on a phone their reflections on the Second World War evacuee's experiences. The boys, in particular, engaged emotionally in a way they never would in writing.

It is important, Mr Gater says, for schools to think about how they use technology. Last week, Walker signed off its policy requiring teachers to delete any picture of young people from their phones, for the pupils' privacy and the teacher's protection.

"It is a minefield," he says. "But there are benefits in walking carefully through a minefield, rather than stopping at the fence. We would never have been victors at El Alamein if we had not found a route through."

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