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QCEC’s Executive Director Dr Lee-Anne Perry discusses calls to ban mobile phones in schools
Many Queensland parents may be eyeing the recent decision of Victorian public schools to introduce a ban on mobile phones with some envy and hoping something similar is in the offing for Queensland schools.
Those same parents will no doubt note the Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has also supported a ban.
On the surface, it is an attractive proposition – get the students to put the phones away and they will be more focused on learning and be free of distraction. However, as a former school principal I can say that in many cases the reality is far more complex.
Last year I served on the Queensland Premier’s Anti-Cyberbullying Taskforce which heard from hundreds of Queenslanders about how they want schools and governments to come to grips with the insidious forms of cyberbullying that have devastating effects on some of our young people.
We spoke to those passionately in favour of banning mobile phones at school and those just as passionately in favour of each school community collaboratively discerning the most appropriate access to these and other digital devices.
After exhaustive research, community forums and expert advice, the Taskforce in its report Adjust Our Settings recommended that each school retain autonomy to determine the best policy on mobile phone and device use during school hours depending on its own circumstances.
The Taskforce recommended that those policies should be formed in consultation with the whole school community so that students, families, staff and school leaders are all on the same page.
The Victorian policy raises many questions when it comes down to the practicalities of school life. Just to start with, it requires students to place their phone in their locker during school hours, presupposing that every student in every school has access to lockable lockers.
Visit most primary schools and many secondary schools and what will greet you is row upon row of open bag racks filled with school bags, jumpers and sports gear. This is a place for students to quickly access what they need during the school day, not a place to keep valuables.
The Victorian policy also does not address the fact that mobile phones are just one of many tools used in schools. Banning them will plug one hole; many others will quickly appear and all the while the underlying issue of respectful behaviour (or its absence) is sidelined.
Schools employ measures to control access to sites other than those required for classes and have systems for teachers to monitor what students are accessing but in reality, a teacher will not be able to teach and keep track of 25 or 30 screens for every second of a class.
As a principal, I would want teachers to be focused on the learning happening in the classroom. I want teachers recognised and respected for the professionalism they bring to their roles.
Everyone has an opinion on how to run schools, but we should be trusting the professional expertise of our teachers and school leaders. As a community we need to ask how much of our precious teaching resource we want to divert from learning to policing devices.
For the students in our classrooms, who are all digital natives, some of their learning has to be about the appropriate use of the technology at their disposal. Schools have policies on the use of technology already and they need to be able to remain flexible in changing those policies as technology evolves.
As Dan Tehan has noted numerous times, schools are increasingly the heart of our communities. They are where families meet, gather as community, and share experiences. Each of those school communities is unique and the mobile phone rules that work for one may not suit the resources, infrastructure and social needs of another.
We should be wary of one-size-fits-all thinking that takes away the autonomy of our communities based on nothing more than something that seemed like a good idea at the time.