A 12-hour school day will not solve the problem of smartphones

This week at school I set a standard creative writing challenge. It was a “show, don’t tell” descriptive writing exercise. My ten year olds (14 to 15 year olds) were asked to describe their most treasured possession. “Can I write on my phone, sir?” a child immediately asked. “Yes sir, could it be my phone?” asked another. I asked how many of the 21 wanted to write about their phones. I was hoping for old teddy bears, footballs or holiday memories. Only four hands remained. Here was further proof that they – almost all of them – are obsessed with their phones.

When I read about the principal of a school in Notting Hill who was planning to introduce a 12-hour school day, with cooking, dodgeball, basketball, art and drama in the ‘extra hours’, I knew where he was coming from. Andrew O’Neill of All Saints Catholic College told a newspaper: “We have a long-term problem that we need to solve,” Mr O’Neill added. “If we don’t do that, we will have a generational problem with the workplace and society.” He continued, “Some kids are so apathetic. They don’t care about anything… They’re buried in their phones.” His general sentiment is evident every day at school, especially when he notices that some kids make friends more easily online than in real life. But is this the solution?

I’ve worked in schools with a total ban on smartphones. ‘Brick’ phones were allowed, but only if they were switched off in a child’s school bag. Any phone seen during school hours resulted in immediate confiscation – until the end of the school year, if it was a smartphone, or a requirement for a parent to come and pick it up, if it was a retro Nokia brick. There were more conflicts, arguments and tears over the phone confiscation than over any other issue.

I also worked at a school with a partial ban: smartphones were allowed if they were turned off in the bag during the day, but students could contact their parents outside office hours. The seizure resulted in an overnight ban, but many teachers simply chose to tell their students to put their phones away — and most students complied. However, that school – like many others – is introducing tablets that can be used in the classroom over the years.

In theory, teachers can use a “big brother” software program to spy on what each student is doing. Who has the mental capacity in practice? It’s easy to spot a child abusing his or her device: the fleeting smile or intense concentration gives away that the child is busy with something illegal, like a video game. If only they focused on that Macbeth. There is no evidence that such devices promote learning.

Like King Canute, we cannot stem the tide of mobile phone use. Parents are also a problem. If they insist that their children have a phone at school, their children will abuse this privilege – because that’s what teenagers do: push boundaries. The only way to deal with this is draconian rules and – crucially – enforce them. I wish Mr. O’Neill the best, but good luck getting those teenagers in at 7am. Most of me revealed in a survey this week that they sleep less than six hours a night. Why? Of course they’re on their phones!