No phone zone: mobile phone bans to improve safeguarding and behaviour in UK

Article Experience

On 29 June 2021, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson launched a call for evidence asking teachers, parents and other staff for their views and policies on managing behaviour ahead of planned updates to Government non-statutory guidance later this year in relation to discipline in schools. This next step follows the Department’s £10 million behaviour hubs programme, which partners heads and leaders from England’s highest performing multi-academy trusts with schools struggling with poor behaviour and discipline.

The six-week consultation seeks an understanding of the policies and strategies schools use to prevent and manage common challenges, and in particular, it will consider how schools’ behaviour policies and approaches in these areas have changed in response to the pandemic and any successful practices they intend to maintain.

Although the majority of schools have policies in place limiting the use of phones in classrooms, rules and sanctions have not always been applied consistently. As such, in addition to the consideration of in-school units and managed moves, the use of mobile phones in schools is one of a number of areas being considered by the Government as part of the review.

The Education Secretary has previously claimed that mobile phones can act as a ‘breeding ground’ for cyberbullying and there is evidence that banning mobile phones from the school day has a possible effect on attainment. There are also clear links between screen time, social media and poor mental health.

The recent statutory guidance in relation to ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ published by the Department for Education on 1 September has additionally stated that children’s unlimited and unrestricted access to the internet via mobile phones means that some children, whilst at school or college, sexually harass their peers via their mobile and smart technology, share indecent images non-consensually (often via large chat groups) and view and share pornography and other harmful content.

As such, the Department for Education has specified that schools and colleges should be carefully considering how this is managed on their premises and reflect sexual violence and sexual harassment in their whole school or college approach to safeguarding and in their child protection policy, as well as implementing a robust mobile phone and smart technology policy.

Ofsted’s rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges published in June this year has additionally highlighted mobile use in the sexual harassment of school girls, with the majority of the more than 900 children and young people surveyed experiencing some kind of unsolicited images or sexist comments online or via mobile phone.

In light of its findings, Ofsted has announced that it has updated its inspection handbook to increase oversight of schools’ handling of sexual harassment, abuse and violence amongst pupils.

From September, where schools do not have adequate measures in place to protect pupils from such abuse, safeguarding will be regarded as ineffective and the overall grade is likely to be ‘inadequate’. As well as considering how allegations are handled when they occur, Ofsted will consider what preventative measures are put in place, including behaviour policies. Ofsted has confirmed that they are looking for head teachers to take a whole-school approach and develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are addressed and sanctioned.

…it has been acknowledged to be an effective strategy to ensure that children are able to work and learn in a safe and secure environment that is free from intimidation, harassment, abuse and violence.

Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has stated that there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the appropriateness of mobiles in schools.

Although banning mobile phones may not tackle violence against women and girls outside of the school gates, it has been acknowledged to be an effective strategy to ensure that children are able to work and learn in a safe and secure environment that is free from intimidation, harassment, abuse and violence.

What can schools do?

As a result of the Ofsted review and the recent statutory guidance developed by the Department for Education, schools should be preparing themselves for a heightened analysis of safeguarding policies and understand what is expected of them in the circumstances.

We recommend that schools consider amending their safeguarding policies (if they have not already done so) to provide the safest environment for the community. This may include ensuring safeguarding information is visible around the school, providing anonymous reporting systems and implementing consistent and robust policies in relation to mobile phones.

Whilst it is unclear at this stage what the effect of the government review will be, there is speculation that a mobile phone ban could be implemented as early as January 2022. In such a situation, the Department for Education will likely provide specific guidance as to how schools and colleges should enforce these policies. Nevertheless, the following factors may serve as a starting point if your school or college is considering such a ban as part of its heightened safeguarding policies:

1. Communication
There needs to be clarity in relation to what the policy will entail, and it is necessary to pre-empt any questions or concerns staff, children and their parents may have. In particular, is the policy a ban, or does it focus on how and when mobile phones are used?

It is vital to communicate the impending change in policy in advance of implementation. In particular, it is important that the decision is formally shared with staff prior to being released to parents and pupils.

In addition, you may wish to consider how the school will communicate the decision to parents. This may include letters home, messages shared via the school account on social media, and prominent announcements on the school website. In these communications, the school should additionally highlight the benefits of the policy, particularly underlining the behavioural aspects to such a ban and any advantages related to safety.

2. Training
A significant area referenced throughout the Ofsted report was the importance of the effective training of staff, the designated safeguarding lead and Governors of the school.

As such, we would recommend inset training at the start of the academic term to explain the behaviour policy to the staff in the first instance, so that it is applied consistently across the board and to ensure that they take a considered and appropriate response. Staff should be able to answer key questions regarding the policy, the new policy’s interaction with other existing behaviour policies and any sanctions in place.

In addition to understanding the policy and potential sanctions, all staff should better understand and be able to identify early signs of peer-on-peer sexual abuse, including online and via mobile phones. The Department for Education’s report on ‘Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment between Children in Schools and Colleges’ published on 1 September provides useful resources and tool-kits for training in relation to harmful sexual behaviour and effective safeguarding practices.

3. Review
Schools and colleges should ensure they review and reflect on the policy at regular intervals, requesting feedback from staff, parents and students.

In particular, schools should consider the impact of the ban on young people with additional needs and pupils who are learners of English as an additional language.

Author: Lily-May Austen, Trainee Solicitor
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The findings from the Department of Education’s call for evidence are due to be released over the coming weeks. We will continue to monitor the findings from the call for evidence and will be providing further updates on this topic in due course.

For further information in relation to the recent update to the statutory guidance for Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021, please see our article “boys being boys” cancelled: Keeping Children Safe in Education (‘KCSIE’) 2021.