Will you be banning mobile devices?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford

Will you be banning mobile phones or taking away tablets? Dr Bernard Trafford says, like it or not, the devices are here to stay

Who’s feeling brave? Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw is looking for heads who have the courage to stand up and ban mobile phones. I won’t be joining that queue.

Nor, come to that, will I be taking the tablets away. There I’m misquoting the Times headline reporting the view, forcibly expressed by Tom Bennett, founder director of ResearchEd and recently-appointed government behaviour tsar, that we should stop handing out tablets and iPads to kids, because most of them will be checking on the size of Kim Kardashian’s backside instead of diligently researching the political background to the First World War.

Mobiles, iPads and tablets are frequently a curse. When kids are surfing porn-sites on those expensively provided tablets, or using their phones to sext, bully, transmit pictures of their less desirable parts, or merely complain about teachers, I wish I had a heavy hammer to hand and could smash every device within reach.

That’s what the Luddites did: but, remember, it didn’t work for them. If we adopted that attitude wholesale, we’d still be dubious about the merits of the printing-press and insisting educational standards can only be maintained if pupils write on vellum with a scratchy quill pen, preferably in ecclesiastical Latin.

Throughout my 25 years as a head, government has been pushing computer technology into the classroom for one or other of two reasons, both unworthy. First, politicians constantly hope that sticking pupils in front of a screen will save on teachers. Who cares if there aren’t enough maths and physics teachers (yet another recent denial by the DfE in the face of the facts, as it happens)? Just get that brilliant teacher at the school up the road to teach on camera to countless classrooms across the country.

It doesn’t work. Teaching remains an intensely interpersonal activity. Teachers who can inspire via camera are rarer than hen’s teeth: but countless teachers are inspirational in their own classroom.

Second, the practice of handing out iPads or tablets to every pupil stems from policy-makers’ belief that teachers are essentially boring and that we can only interest kids if we’re fizzy, buzzy – and digital.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-tech. I’m addicted to my iPhone 6 and, rather than a laptop, I use a MacBook. I use a pen only to scribble notes of congratulation, thanks or sympathy. But there’s still a lot to be said for pupils practising skills and techniques in an exercise-book so that they and teachers alike can see progress over time.

Oh, and inspectors like it too.

I concede that both phones and tablets can and do create problems in schools: nonetheless I don’t believe we should ban them. I’ve always tried to run schools on the basis that we tell children what standards we expect, and then trust them to meet those standards. When they fail to, we take action.

We must accept that in 2015 the first and quickest way to find out stuff is online. My school, like most others, has school-wide wi-fi, actively encouraging BYOD: students are expected to use it constructively, usefully and at the appropriate time.

Similarly we have some class sets of tablets, and still a lot of hard-wired PCs. They’re employed across many subjects for speedy research, creative design and presentation: and, let’s be honest, a finished piece of work looks better printed out than scrawled in a book.

It’s real life. We all use our phones for quick searches, for that instant answer. Why should we deny pupils that real-life facility in school? We need the technology, but it mustn’t rule us. So we should educate our students about how and when to use it, not ban it.

I’m not daft. I know that makes for pain along the way: but, then, who ever said education was easy?

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him on Twitter @bernardtrafford


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