Gavin Williamson launches consultation on behaviour, but unions say it is an attempt to distract from government’s Covid failures
Williamson wants to make schools ‘mobile-free’, but Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says every school will already have a robust policy on the use of mobile phones. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Mobile phones could be banned in schools as part of a government clampdown on poor discipline in classrooms in England.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said he wants a ban on mobile phones as he launched a consultation on pupil behaviour and discipline in schools. He said he wanted to make the school day “mobile-free” to help ensure that classrooms remain calm and pupils can overcome the impact of the pandemic. “Mobile phones are not just distracting, but when misused or overused, they can have a damaging effect on a pupil’s mental health and wellbeing,” the education secretary said. “I want to put an end to this, making the school day mobile-free.” Headteachers and teaching unions hit back, insisting that mobile phone policies were a matter for schools. They accused the education secretary of playing to backbench MPs and using the issue as a distraction from the government’s failures on education during the pandemic. Williamson is asking teachers, parents and other school staff for their views and policies on managing good behaviour in classrooms, before updating government guidance on behaviour, discipline, suspensions and permanent exclusions later this year. As well as mobile phone policies, the government is looking at the use of “removal rooms” in schools and so-called managed moves where a pupil is transferred to another school, often as a way of avoiding a formal expulsion. Announcing the six-week consultation on Tuesday, Williamson said: “No parent wants to send their child to a school where poor behaviour is rife. Every school should be a safe place that allows young people to thrive and teachers to excel. “In order for us to help pupils overcome the challenges from the pandemic and level up opportunity for all young people, we need to ensure they can benefit from calm classrooms which support them to thrive.” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, accused the education secretary of being “obsessed” with mobile phones in schools. “In reality, every school will already have a robust policy on the use of mobile phones; it isn’t some sort of digital free-for-all. “Frankly, school and college leaders would prefer the education secretary to be delivering an ambitious post-pandemic recovery plan and setting out how he intends to minimise educational disruption next term, rather than playing to backbenchers on the subject of behaviour.” Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, added: “Talking about mobile phones is a distraction. Schools generally have very clear policies and will not see the need for another consultation.” Sarah Hannafin, senior policy adviser for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Mobile phone bans work for some schools but there isn’t one policy that will work for all schools. Outright banning mobile phones can cause more problems than it solves.” Crackdowns on discipline and behaviour in schools play well not only with Conservative backbenchers, but are a favourite with the wider Tory faithful. Williamson’s latest call for evidence comes after a £10m investment in “behaviour hubs”, which will see leaders from high-performing multi-academy trusts working with schools where behaviour and discipline are poorer. The majority of schools already have policies in place limiting the use of phones in classrooms, and about half of secondary schools and most primary schools do not allow phones to be used at break or lunchtime either, but rules and sanctions are not always applied consistently. The education secretary has previously said that mobile phones can act as a “breeding ground” for cyberbullying, and earlier this month the head of Ofsted highlighted their use in the sexual harassment and abuse of schoolgirls. Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, said there was a legitimate discussion to be had about the appropriateness of mobiles in schools. “We found they were frequently enabling harassment and abuse, through sharing nudes,” she said, acknowledging however that “banning phones in schools does not stop harassment and abuse going on outside schools”. Ofsted announced on Monday that it had updated its inspection handbook to beef up its oversight of schools’ handling of sexual harassment, abuse and violence among pupils, after the publication of its recent report, which found incidents were so common that many pupils did not bother to report them. From September, where schools do not have adequate measures in place to protect pupils, safeguarding will be regarded as ineffective and the overall grade is likely to be “inadequate”, Ofsted said. School leaders are expected to assume that sexual misconduct is happening in and around their school, even in the absence of any reports, and to adopt a whole-school approach. Ofsted will consider how schools handle allegations when they occur, and what preventative measures to put in place, including behaviour policies and the relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum. Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national education director, said: “We will expect schools and colleges to have created a culture where sexual abuse and harassment is not acceptable and never tolerated. And where pupils are supported to report any concerns about harmful sexual behaviour and can feel confident they will be taken seriously.”