Mobile Phones in Schools, Friend or Foe?

My Precious
“iPhone 5S” by Janitors is licensed under CC BY 2.0

So the utterly lacklustre Education Minister , Gavin Williamson a man with a personality that could challenge that of a  stone and lose, has decided to ban mobile phones in schools. Well, I suppose you have to be seen to be doing something, even if its something utterly crass and stupid to the point of insulting just abut every school and teacher in the land.

I speak from a lifetime of involvement in the educational process, as teacher, educational publisher, and school governor for 27 years.

Let me be clear, the Educational  IT revolution of the last 10-15 years has ignited a flame that cannot be extinguished either by Ministerial edict or by a Victorian view of education that many who succeeded under a regime of child beating and cold showers seem to think is lacking today. The Mobile Phone is a powerful computer, those who use them in schools do so because it means there is no requirement to walk to the fusty library and turn endless pages in search of a single , probably out-of-date  fact from a book that was out of date before the school even bought it.

This debate runs to the very heart of why we educate children and what the purpose of educating them is. The Victorian system was a series of classes by age, often with 60+ students being taught the essential basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. The purpose was to provide factories , railways and the like with a workforce capable of communicating, measuring and recording. If a Victorian walked into most classrooms today, they would easily recognise what was happening, rows of desks and lots of trying to memorise.  After WWW we saw a whole range of educational experiments in recognition that the world was moving away from the 3 R’s and had become more complicated and demanding, 3 tiers of schools, Grammar, Technical, Secondary Modern were the first attempt, then in the 70,s we saw,  Middle Schools, Comprehensive schools , several variants of self-governing schools. We keep Learners in school longer too, we have had ROSLA (Raising Of the School Leaving Age) in the 1960’s to 16, we now have compulsory English and Maths for those who fail GCSEs to age 18, we had O levels then CSEs, then GCSEs, A/S levels. All the while , the Independent Sector was skimming off the children of the wealthy and providing the simple solutions to what was deemed a “good” education, small classes, a financially involved set of parents and excellent facilities including Music lessons, high quality pitches, Cadet Corps, top quality laboratories and study facilities and the ultimate threat for those who rebelled… being sent home.

These changes sowed the wind and schools in the last 25 years have become a battleground for idiot lefties and rabid righties, each change of Government helping to inflict further damage on an already mortally wounded system. .

“The Education system is more broken than the Banking system” These were the words of the Headteacher of the school I joined as a governor just before his retirement in 2007. As someone whose work had taken him into literally thousands of schools, it was hard to disagree. The school where I became a Governor was built as a Middle school for 10-13 year olds, in 1993 the LEA rejected Middle Schools and reshuffled the pack (again) and the school was designated a Secondary school, my initial contact was as a Publishers Representative, the school needed a completely set of text books for every class and subject, I was lucky enough to be able to provide a large proportion of them and as my Son would eventually become a student there, I decided to see if I could add my experience of schools to the Governing Body. I had joined what was to be an uphill battle for the next 26 years. I quickly realised that the LEA was incompetent, the waste was eye-watering.

In the last 26 years, the school has had 3 major building projects totalling over £20m, the first was under way as I joined, a large new block of classrooms but sadly no new gym, sports hall or even clothes pegs at a height where 16 year-olds trousers didn’t dangle onto the floor. It took years and a major grant from Sport England (a further £2.5m)

to get indoor sports facilities and a 3G pitch capable a hosting 30 x 16 year old lads, and this in the wettest town in the UK with a 50,000+ population. the school was then more or less completely rebuilt (except for the newer bits) by a £10m “Building Schools for the Future” Grant, a process that ate up managerial time and energy like a Black Hole. At one point we had 20 Portacabin classrooms and classes were rotated into them on a termly basis as the new build went on around them GCSE Results that year were the worst ever. Such has been the success of the school in recent years, a further £8.5m has been spent on 12 new classrooms as the school population has expanded from a low of 700 to an anticipated 1200

In 2008, as Chairman of Governors,  I appointed a new Head, and we were sufficiently aligned in our thinking to realise we needed urgent changes. When Ofsted called 2 weeks into his new job and suddenly we Required Improvement urgent change had become an existential neccessity. We were known as “the hippy school” locally because we had introduced “Project Based Learning” for Key Stage 3 Learners, giving them an opportunity to work on a project of their own choice for 3 or 4 hours a week, their finished project required them to present it to a group of adults and peers and also at an exhibition for parents. The work was generally of a high standard with much research and investigation required. This was the start of a new journey! The University of Bristol took note of our PBL work and instigated a study to see what happened to our students who hade undergone some of the early iterations . It turns out our students were much better at organising their own learning and much more likely to become lifelong learners than any other school in the area or indeed versus national figures, they also went on to pass more exams!

The Project work had proved to us that Kids really do want to learn, its the method by which we expect them to learn that causes most of the problems, we had introduced a simple uniform, black shoes, black trousers and jumper with a white shirt. No ties! Our Asian Girls approved, as did 99% of the other kids and their parents, it was simple and cheap and it stopped dozens of petty arguments about how learners were wearing their ties or the colour of their socks.  Then we looked at the relationships in school and discovered that some teachers had virtually no working relationship with their classes and vice versa. over the next 4 years we moved on nearly 50% of the staff and replaced them with energetic teachers who new their subjects and who shared our new view of how education needs to work. The introduction of the “Magna Carta”, a termly review of teachers by students was eye-opening to say the least.

The mobile phone “conversation” was continually under discussion and we arrived at a simple solution. “You can bring a mobile phone into the classroom and use it to help your studies. If you misuse it, you will have it confiscated for 2 days as a first offence and longer if you continue to abuse it’s use.”. Great, students now had access to IT wherever they were in the building. Yes, there have been occasional confrontations but the rules are generally well accepted. and the growth of well-written apps and note-taking software has help students to become literate in the 21st century and for the 20th century. Is there anything that you can’t learn from YouTubeif you have a mind to?

Our next major challenge was how to escape from the clutches of Ofsted, it took 5 years but eventually we had the right approach and the right staff and we went through the 3rd major Ofsted review like a knife through butter, Teaching was improved, relationships in school were excellent and results were rapidly improving in all areas.

And then we hit the jackpot… we became a trial school for a science programme (software +student app) called Tassomai. In less than 6 months, 140 dual-science students answered over 1.4 million graded questions and many increased their grades by 3 or 4 levels, we were 1000% above the national average for Grade 9 GCSEs in science and had out performed several local Grammar schools, and this in a school where 49% of students were eligible for free school meals!!!

A further innovation was the introduction of Saturday morning classes, (nicked unashamedly from the Independent sector). We offered Learners the opportunity to work with some (paid) students from the local 6th form college for 4 hours on anything they thought they needed to do, revision, homework, etc. we provided drinks and a pizza for lunch and refused to let latecomers in after 9.00 am Over 100 turned up for the first session  and over 150 the week after. more students from the College were hired and numbers continued to hold up week after week. – we called the “just in time learning” and the results were spectacular, students who turned up to 17 or more sessions (just short of 70 hours) gained an average improvement of 2 grades across the board. This by any measurement is huge, possibly the best educational improvement measure you could hope to imagine. During the covid lockdowns, these sessions have been ongoing via online means especially via mobile phones, eat that Mr Williamson!

So what have we learned, what have we proved?

  1. Learning is hard-wired into humans the barriers to learning have not been erected by kids. Getting rid of institutional thinking and pettifogging bureaucracy. has released a tidal wave of learning including the learning the Government insists on and much productive learning beyond school.
  2. Teachers need to be come learning enablers and stop getting into time wasting arguments about uniforms, walking on the left and all the other petty rules.
  3. Mobile phones, properly used are a good thing, as is IT generally and if schools can’t or won’t embrace it , more fool them
  4. Government needs to drop its patronising “we know best” attitude with its attendant simplified view of education, and too many schools are actually getting in the way of effective learning by hanging on to “status” and “tradition” which make no real impact on learning or how to learn.
  5. A good school needs, good relationships, good teachers, and good IT. Fearless leadership and competent governance are also non-negotiables.


It is unfortunate that successive Education Ministers cannot see beyond their own educations for solutions to the problems within the Education System, there is simply so much that needs to change, like the switch from knowledge to skills. It matters little what you actually can recite, the real skill is in finding out what you need to know and then applying the new information. The need to retain so much information has passed. Our exam system needs to confront Learners with challenges to be solved not continually check what has been remembered over the 11 years of compulsory education, the world is moving too fast for remembering indeed on a university computing course, most of what is learned in the first 2 years is redundant by year 3. As an example take trigonometry, once vital to engineers but largely replaced by IT, and yet continually bashed by Maths departments but how many schools have CNC lathes or 3D printers which could be used to demonstrate many of the principles? And even the schools that have the equipment do not have the curriculum flexibility to change to a problem solving research based way of teaching thanks to the thrreats of Ofsted.

Why do we continue to want every child to speak a foreign language badly? We don’t test for musicality and have no idea which learners might be adept and which never will be, so we continue to sausage them through a system and yet they intuitively know there are instant translations on their phones, there are apps that translate your speech in virtually any other language in parts of seconds. Learning a new language from scratch is daft for 99% of the population and even when you are good at it you rarely have the opportunity to use it.

Why do we insist on some sort of humanities learning such as History or Geography, and yet teach  almost nothing about home economics, nutritrition or even one pan meal making, much less databases, coding websites, or how to use a spreadsheetStudy the formation of Ox Bow Lakes by all means but do it as individual study or at a university, and on that point, why are we asking Students to run up huge debts when every Secondary school could become an onlune study centre in the evenings and upskilling their whole community? What is so great about running up £50k of debt only to find that the lad who started at 16 is your boss and knows more than you do?

Arguing about mobile phones is as stupid as insisting on black socks and ties with 7 stripes showing (as another local school does whilst ignoring the drug gangs that prowl its corridors). We need grown ups to run Education policy, people with courage and committment capable in forcing change across the board change that is to the benefit of learners and the economy at large.. Unfortunately we have had a procession of the clueless, all with rose-coloured memories of their own schooldays. Not good enough Mr Williamson,… D minus, see me in the morning.


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