As the head of a school, you know that a decision you are about to impose may not always be met with universal approval. And so it was that, at assembly on 29 August, I braced myself for the reaction to my banning of mobile phones within the campus of our day and boarding school here in Perthshire.
The story made headlines: national press, TV and radio picked it up. Serendipitously, just a few days later, France announced that it was banning mobiles from all schools – going one step further and introducing a law to impose it.
And then there was silence. Not just from the ringing of telephones, but from our pupil body complaining about the new regime. I started to breathe more deeply.
Ten years ago, the “bring your device to school” idea offered a panacea to cash-strapped educational establishments. Overnight, a whole raft of self-provided electronic resources were brought into schools. Who could have foreseen the consequences?
Pupils stopped speaking to each other, complained of neck pain from reading screens and became agitated if separated from their device. I used to send my daughter texts during the school day and she would reply instantly. What, I thought, is she missing while replying to me?
“Social media”, we are now discovering, is a cruel master. “You feel pressure to conform when you follow celebrities who Facetune their physical image,” one upper-sixth pupil told me. Cyberbullying, on platforms such as Snapchat, where the evidence is quickly extinguished, is toxic – a perfect storm of teenage pressure.
'It’s like having our own girl back'
In just two weeks, the effect at Kilgraston has been astonishing – and don’t just take my word for it. “The change in [our daughter] is amazing,” one mother emailed. “It’s like having our own girl back. No sign of panic or anxiety.”
Mum continued: “She was previously using her mobile phone to ‘hide behind’ and cope in pressured situations, like break and lunchtime. Now she is not at all worried about putting her phone away during school, and that speaks volumes.”
Teachers, too, have noticed the mood change. One told me: “It [the ban] has had an instantaneous effect in school. One can feel a palpable sense of relief among the girls, as if a storm has passed over their heads and life is returned to normal. Soft, bubbly chatter everywhere. Girls are more present and more relaxed, and more responsive.”
And the pupils – what do they feel? “We definitely notice a difference, especially in the upper-sixth study common room,” says 17-year-old Cleodie Lawson. “We’re all talking more, sitting together and discussing.”
Physical appearance, too, has changed: “We’re walking with our heads held high,” said Mia Hunter.
In fact, sixth form has embraced the new initiative with such enthusiasm that pupils are starting social media discussion groups and becoming ambassadors for passing on their experiences to younger girls.
'The grapevine is a powerful tool'
Like any change in policy, there have been a few bumps in the road. Instant feedback on homework has been a casualty and girls now have to wait a few hours – goodness, imagine! – to read their tutor’s comments.
Changes in timetable or location are not quite as quick to be initiated, but the grapevine of teenage girls is a powerful tool and, somehow, word spreads and we all end up in the right place at the right time.
I fully appreciate that Kilgraston is a relatively small school (with 260 pupils) and that this policy might be more challenging for a larger establishment. But here’s the rub: this isn’t really a new initiative – it’s more of a case of turning back the clock. We make plans, we stick to them, thus removing all that uncertainty in between – and that allows us to get on with the core task of teaching and learning.
Dorothy MacGinty is head at Kilgraston, an independent day and boarding school for girls aged 5-18, near Perth