Opinion

The government's mobile phone crackdown in schools doesn't ring true

We need meaningful action if we want to tackle behavioural problems in schools, not unrealistic policies

The government wants to crack down on phone usage in schools. Image: Shutterstock

I’m a big fan of letters. One of the joys of being with Big Issue is that we still receive a lot of posted reader correspondence, either typed or handwritten. There is something very personal about handwritten letters. The idea of sitting down to physically make a mark and formulate thoughts, and then taking the time to go somewhere to have this delivered, establishes a connection that electronic correspondence can’t quite match.

And there remains an element of excitement in receiving something through the post that is not a flyer for a miracle wifi service or a preordained Amazon package.  

It remains revelatory to read the letters of historical figures. Frequently real truths are presented that would otherwise be hidden or varnished. Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note collections are essential reading. 

I still exchange letters with an old friend. These have no historical value, unless you are interested in broad insults and arguments about the Wee Grouse in 1990. Frequently they are full of things that could have been, or maybe already have been, exchanged on WhatsApp. But they have allowed an almost lifelong friendship to be sustained over time and physical distance. It is, as my children remind me, boomer action.

The idea of them, or their friends – late teens/early 20s – sitting down to write a letter is so completely anathema as to be mindboggling, like a suggestion of smoke signals as communication. Why do that when you have a smartphone, the device that is less communication aid more grafted part of their natural body? Ofcom say that by the age of 12, 97% of children own a phone.  

The government rolled out their big action plan this week to limit use of phones in schools. It was billed as a CRACKDOWN. It really had a hollow ring(tone). Sorry.  

To give them a little credit, the idea is probably well intentioned. Protect children from the worst of the internet, its distractions and darkness, as well as from online bullying. But it feels all as substantial as smoke in a bucket. It’s pretty much boomer action. 

Most school have policies in place for phone use as they have for other actions and behaviours. Some, I’d imagine, work better than others. But a directive from central government has no meaningful use. It comes from a place that presupposes a young person on a phone is either up to no good or discovering something no good.  

Yet, it is through Google classroom that a lot of lesson plans are sent and shared – accessible through phones. It is on other shared platforms that exam results are posted. It is through access on a phone that part-time jobs are discovered, as is the world.  

Younger people trying to make sense of the mess their elders are making of things use their phones. It is where they will learn about Navalny’s death or the horrors in Gaza. They are not getting it from the six o’clock news. They greet the world through their phone. I suppose the government understands this, otherwise the Home Office would not have made that bizarre offer to pay Albanian influencers to take to TikTok to discourage potential migrants. It just makes their CRACKDOWN clearly performative rather than meaningful. 

If they really want to help behaviour in schools, and help pupils, they should get more insight from teachers, support the industry with more money, and not waste time on policy announcements that will have no meaningful impact on any aspect of life. 

In fact, I’m going to write a letter about this and send it in. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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