Mobile phones vs discipline

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Low-level disruption in Scotland's schools is decreasing with the exception of mobile phones. But Alex Wood says the obvious solutions to this problem are not necessarily the ones we should be taking.

The Scottish government’s recent report on behaviour in Scottish schools has elicited the responses which might be expected. At the same time its key contents have been ignored.

Perceptions across schools are that both low level disruptive behaviour and serious disruptive behaviour have decreased year-on-year since 2006. 

The exception is in relation to the use of mobile phones.

Deteriorating standards of behaviour represent a god-send for the few staffroom cynics in every school but, even more, for newspaper editors seeking an easy headline.

Despite the noted overall improvements, sections of the media have spoken of “mounting disruption” in Scottish schools. Loud calls for “zero tolerance” of mobiles have followed. At the same time, other teachers claim they have no option but to ignore mobiles in class. Some level-headed analysis needs to be given these issues.

First, all teenagers will misbehave at times, including in school. Some teenagers will misbehave regularly, especially in school. Like parents, most teachers understand that.

Compared, however, to my early days in teaching, there may be more troubled kids in schools but teachers’ skills in behaviour management have increased and general levels of in-school behaviour have consequently improved.

So let’s consider mobile phones but let’s first set a few baselines about behaviour management. Schools and teachers, like others in authority, should only set rules they can enforce. They should only set rules where the enforcement is practical without an effort which is disproportionate to the disruption caused by absence of a rule. They should set rules for things that matter, above all else in schools, to protect learners and staff from hurt and to allow learning to proceed.

That’s where the issue of mobile phones comes in. We live in the age of the ubiquitous mobile. It will not disappear. It is now part of everyday life for an entire generation. Teachers have bigger issues over which to be vexed than the arrival of the mobile era. Indeed mobiles have their educational uses.

Of course a mobile phone ringing in class is disruptive. Tell the offender to switch off but, if a first occurrence, that’s a minor offence. I know I’ve occasionally failed to switch mine to silent and it has rung in an inappropriate context. 

What is entirely unacceptable is the private use of a mobile in class, either for conversations or texting. It’s unacceptable because it disrupts learning. The simple, effective response is confiscation of the mobile and its return only on the basis of a parental meeting where school attempts to win the parents on-side. 

The problem, of course, can be the parent who insists on being able to contact their child at any time. They need to appreciate how they are undermining their child’s learning and the learning of everyone else in the class. For a regime like that to work, however, requires everyone in a school – senior management, class teachers and classroom support – to be working together and applying the rule rigorously and without favour.

There is also an issue of equity here. It is hard for teachers to tell students to switch off their mobiles if the same teachers have their own mobiles switched on.

Where we need some common sense is the cry for no use of phones in school time. Of course, a student using a mobile in the corridor can cause accidents, and we could seek to ban them in transit between classes. My simple question: how much effort would be required to police that diktat? Few of us would wish now to live without our mobiles. Let’s get real about how students use theirs.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.



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