Are mobile phones in Scotland's classrooms a boon or a bane?
Discuss. When I was at school "low-level disruptive behaviour" referred to Nigel pulling Susan's plaits, Alan flicking ink-soaked balls of blotting paper at Bobby and Linda secretly circulating her latest grotesque caricature of our history teacher's monumental backside.
Today, according to the latest Behaviour in Scottish Schools report, the proliferation of unauthorised smartphone use is what's creating headaches for secondary school teachers and support staff. It's up to individual headteachers to devise an appropriate policy for their own school. In Scotland few ban them outright. It's more common to have a series of warnings culminating in temporary confiscation. In practice, as the report puts it, many teachers feel that "confronting a pupil who is surreptitiously looking at their phone ...can cause more problems than tactically ignoring it".
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Teacher friends of mine agree that the cumulative impact and constant distraction of pupils reading and sending texts during lessons are more than merely irritating. Schools are reluctant to take responsibility for damaged, lost or stolen phones that can cost hundreds of pounds. And policing any phone policy is virtually impossible when tech-savvy teens can find a loophole in any set of rules and several can touch-text in their pockets.
Moreover, bullying is harder to control when fisticuffs in the playground have been replaced by the use of mobiles to spread malicious gossip, especially among girls. Of course, online bullying doesn't exist in isolation but, as my family discovered, when one of our daughters was a victim, cruel texts and voicemails can spread and amplify it. (Finally, we were forced to step in when a group of girls took to throwing lit matches into her curly hair on the school bus.)
Also, smart devices are more than mere phones. They can be used to secretly video a ranting teacher with the result posted on YouTube or to access a spot of pornography during geography.
In England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, wants a ban on taking mobiles into classes as part of a drive to improve school discipline. As head of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, he operated such a policy. And in Wales new legislation gives teachers the power to search pupils for handsets if they suspect misuse. Should Scotland outlaw mobiles from the classroom? After all, children are at school to learn. Isn't this blurring of their school work and social life unhelpful?
No. I finally gave in to pressure and bought my girls phones partly because I wanted to know where they were and partly because not having them became a source of bullying in itself. I also calculated that in a world where every train and bus is full of adults thumb-tapping, heads bowed, staring at tiny screens, they could not learn the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable use without owning one.
Banning them from the classroom would send out the message that schools are out of touch with the real world. And, like smoking behind the bike sheds, a ban would do little to deter the practice. In most schools it would involve trying to put the genie back in the bottle. It could even prove counterproductive.
Ultimately, Wilshaw is wrong because the smartphone is revolutionising the way we access information and schools should recognise that by exploiting it. Yesterday's report includes a pilot scheme in upper primary where pupils are actively encouraged to use smartphones to research course content. Facebook is mounting a fightback, arguing that the site can be used to expand students' enjoyment of learning. Of course, what we need is a balance that clamps down on the use of mobiles for bullying or accessing inappropriate material and discourages time-wasting and obsessive use but embraces them as educational aids. In 2012 your child's smartphone should be as indispensable as her pencil case.