New Government Guidance On Mobile Phones In Schools

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There is a growing recognition of how technology is shaping the education and wellbeing of pupils in schools. According to Ofcom by the age of 12, 97% of children in the UK...
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An overview of the latest DfE guidance and its implications for schools and academy trusts

There is a growing recognition of how technology is shaping the education and wellbeing of pupils in schools. According to Ofcom by the age of 12, 97% of children in the UK own a mobile phone. The Office for National Statistics has reported that one in five children have reportedly experienced bullying online and a Department for Education (DfE) survey from 2021-22 indicates that 29% of secondary school pupils reported mobile phones being used in most of their lessons without permission.

The government issued new Mobile Phones in Schools guidance on 19 February 2024 encouraging schools to implement a policy prohibiting mobile phone use throughout the school day, including break and lunch periods. The aim of the guidance is to mitigate disruption and improve behaviour in classrooms.

It is important to note that while the guidance provides strong recommendations, it is not statutory, and schools and trusts are not required by law to follow it. Trustees of academy trusts are required under their funding agreement to have regard to DfE guidance. If they decide to depart from the guidance, they must have good reasons for doing so.

Developing policy

The guidance does not include any new powers for head teachers and does not mandate one particular approach, but it includes a number of possible strategies to limit mobile phone use which will tie into pre-existing behaviour and confiscation guidance.

Schools are encouraged to consult with parents to develop their policy, considering ways to mitigate specific parental concerns and build support for their chosen approach.

The possible strategies include:

  • No mobile phones on school premises: enforcing a strict policy of no mobile phones allowed within school premises;
  • Mobile phones handed in on arrival: implementing a system where pupils hand in their mobile phones upon arrival and collect them at the end of the day;
  • Secure storage: using secure lockers or designated storage areas to ensure mobile phones are inaccessible throughout the school day;
  • Never used, seen or heard: allowing pupils to have a mobile phone in their possession at school but under the strict condition that they are never used, seen or heard during school hours.

The guidance also includes the following recommendations:

  • BYOD schemes: while Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes may allow the use of pupil's own laptop or tablet to support learning, mobile phones should not be included in such schemes;
  • Boarding and residential schools: special provisions should be made to facilitate private communication between boarders and their families whilst ensuring mobile phone usage is regulated during teaching hours;
  • Sixth form students: considerations should be made for sixth form students, reflecting their increased independence, with use permitted at specified times and locations but not in front of younger pupils;
  • School trips: schools have discretion in managing mobile phone usage during school trips but are encouraged to restrict usage to ensure that educational experiences are not disrupted.

Special circumstances, discrimination and reasonable adjustments

Schools and trusts are reminded that there may be circumstances where adjustments need to be made to the policy for individual pupils. These include circumstances relating to:

  • the pupil's age;
  • any religious requirements affecting the pupil;
  • any special educational needs or disability;
  • any cause to suspect that a pupil is suffering harm or may be at risk of harm.

Where a pupil may be at risk of harm, school staff should follow the child protection policy and speak to the designated safeguarding lead. Policy should allow for pupils to access their mobile phone where necessary when raising concerns with teachers about issues which have occurred online.

Schools and trusts must adhere to the Equality Act 2010. This includes ensuring their policy does not disadvantage disabled pupils. Allowing a disabled pupil to access their mobile phone during the school day, where it is necessary due to the nature of their disability, may constitute a reasonable adjustment. Failure to make adjustments to any policy or arrangements for individual disabled pupils may be in breach of this duty.

More broadly, the application of a blanket mobile phone policy which disadvantages pupils sharing a particular protected characteristic could lead to indirect discrimination claims and it will be important to consider from the outset the legitimate aims of the policy and whether action taken under the policy is a proportionate way to achieve those aims.

Consideration should also be given to the particular circumstances of the pupil. For example schools may need to take a flexible approach to mobile phone prohibition for young carers in view of their distinct needs and responsibilities.

Sanctions and enforcement

Schools and trusts are encouraged either to develop a mobile phone policy as part of their behaviour policy, or as a standalone document which aligns to and is enforced under that policy.

According to the guidance, headteachers are backed by the DfE to confiscate mobile phones for a proportionate duration and are protected by law against liability for loss or damage to confiscated items, as set out in the latest Searching, Screening and Confiscation advice for schools. Headteachers, or the staff they authorise, also have the power to search pupils or their possessions if reasonable grounds suggest the presence of prohibited items. Schools are encouraged to identify mobile phones and similar devices in their policies and rules as items that can be searched for.

The guidance recommends the consistent enforcement of the policy, and discourages staff members from using their mobile phones for personal reasons in front of pupils. It also encourages student education about the risks associated with mobile phone usage in school and elsewhere, including loss of focus in lessons, classroom disruption and increased incidents of bullying.

The guidance also recommends that parents are encouraged to reinforce the policy at home and to call the school office if they need to contact their child during the school day.

Sector response

Geoff Barton, outgoing general secretary of the Association of Schools and College Leaders, has described this as a “non-policy for a non-problem” on the basis that most schools already have a robust no mobile phone policy in place.

In its guidance, the government acknowledges that some schools are already implementing and enforcing tight restrictions and that there is considerable existing good practice in schools in this regard. It says that the aim of the guidance is to achieve clarity and consistency in practice.

In her introduction to the guidance, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan refers to online harms for children outside of school, stating that the Online Safety Act 2023 aims to make Britain the safest place in the world to be a child online. However, commentators have called for more emphasis on protecting young people from harm when online, noting that this new guidance does little to safeguard children from such harm outside the school day.

Next Steps

Schools and trusts may wish to integrate mobile phone provisions within their existing behaviour policy or to develop a standalone document, tailored to their particular context and the needs of pupils.

The DfE has also published a toolkit for schools on communicating their mobile phone use policy.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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