If we don’t ban smartphones in schools we’ll be on the wrong side of history

Bored male student using phone during a class
Children will be revived by banning of mobile phones in schools - Getty Images

When I told my 12-year-old that you used to be able to smoke on planes, she wasn’t shocked. She wasn’t amused in her usual “tell me more about the Palaeolithic era” way either – because she didn’t believe me. The idea that anyone had ever been allowed to light up on a flight was so patently insane that she was convinced I was making it up. “Not in the actual plane,” she kept repeating, until I was forced to tell the story of an Alitalia flight to Milan I took in the early nineties, the human chimney sitting beside me and the three laundry cycles it took to remove the stench from my socks. My socks.

When she’s my age, she’ll be telling her children similarly implausible stories about, among other things, smartphones in schools. Those stories will doubtless be dismissed as fictions by the children, who have a steely confidence about what’s right and wrong that’s apparently lost in adulthood. “Not in the classroom; no way did that ever happen.” And in the telling of these anecdotes, my adult daughter will wonder for the thousandth time: “what the hell were people thinking?”

As Eton becomes the latest – and most high profile – British school to bring in a smartphone ban this September, starting with Year 9 students, it’s time for our new government to speed up the righting of this wrong. The non-statutory “guidance” it took the last one almost three years to dispense, in February, is not enough. And unless solid legislation is passed, it’s easy to predict how more and more private schools will follow Eton’s example, while the state school sector is allowed to languish – while the country’s least privileged pupils become a casualty of our cowardice.

While state schools are amongst the meagre 11 per cent of UK schools to have banned smartphones completely, the private sector has been far more strident, with places like Thomas’s in Battersea, south London – formerly attended by Prince George and Princess Charlotte – bringing in a similar policy in September, and Alleyn’s in Dulwich, south London, even going so far as to urge parents not to buy a smartphone for young children at all.

Our educational system is riddled with complex, borderline insoluble problems, but this one’s a no-brainer. Studies compiled and published by the TES (formerly Times Educational Supplement) magazine two months ago may have provided empirical evidence that smartphone bans improved concentration levels, grades, behaviour and mental health (whilst also reducing bullying), but any parent could have told you what those lofty institutions and psychologists took months to establish in a heartbeat.

The data we should be paying far more attention to “shows that the harms caused by smartphones affects those in the lowest economic households the most”, explained Joe Ryrie, the co-founder of the campaign group, Smartphone Free Childhood, in response to Eton’s announcement yesterday. With lower income parents less likely to have the time or the bandwidth to implement curbs let alone bans on smartphone usage at home, the most vulnerable children will, on average, spend “twice as much time a day on screens, and are twice as likely to report being physically threatened online.” Providing them with a six-to-seven-hour window in which they are able to learn, focus and interact in the way every child should, is as basic a responsibility as providing them with school meals.

Setting aside trivial matters of grades and learning, the notion of basic childhood interactions needing to be “brought back” is enough to make one weep. Yet every parent has witnessed first-hand the deadening effect of smartphones, and the schools that have banned the devices have reported scenes not dissimilar to those in Oliver Sacks’ famous memoir, Awakenings: a sudden vitality in classrooms, laughter, even flirting – killed off by screens – amongst pupils. Imagine a world in which the most vulnerable are deprived of all that, alongside everything else?

Until recently, critics were saying that smartphone bans were impossible to implement. Now that they are being brought in by an increasing number of schools and that we are belatedly acknowledging these devices as the biggest daily threat to our children’s development and happiness, they’ll cite the cost as the reason a mandatory country-wide ban would be impossible.

Eton has said it will issue pupils with a basic Nokia handset instead. How can any state school do the same? How can they foot the bill for thousands of phone-lockers or Yondr pouches (magnetic pouches kept sealed for a specific time frame in phone-free spaces)?

To this I would say: let’s think about the cost of generations of children handicapped by technology in a place that should operate on a higher plane to the rest of life. As part of the consultation the government now needs to launch without delay, let’s look at how the state schools who are imposing bans – the 30-plus primaries across St Albans, for example, that have banded together to make it the first UK city to go smartphone-free – are making them work.

We are already on the wrong side of history on this, with France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and other European countries all now having banned digital devices at school. Let’s not be remembered as the country that dragged its feet when it came to protecting its children.