I’m the head at Gordonstoun. We banned phones

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Today, schools in England have been given new guidance to curb the use of phones during the school day and to reduce social media use. The Government has said the move was part of a plan to “minimise disruption and improve behaviour in classrooms”. Lisa Kerr, the principal of Gordonstoun in Scotland, where King Charles went to school, has banned phones since 2017. Here she explains the transformational impact it has had

There was inevitably some initial uncertainty about how the new rules would be received – I know how much we all use our phones and so wasn’t sure how it was going to play out. But we all knew this was something we could, and should, do something about.

We first introduced controls on mobile phones in 2017. Pupils were banned from using their phones during the day. But we knew we could do more, so we reviewed those rules and strengthened them at the start of this academic year.

Now, most pupils have to leave their mobile phones in their boarding house during the day. They can collect their phone at 4.30pm once they have finished their homework. But it has to be locked away during homework time, overnight and in the charging cabinet by 9.15pm.

Older students have a little bit more trust placed in them; 17 and 18-year-olds are allowed to have their phone with them but it has to be either off or on Do Not Disturb. It also has to be out of sight and it can only be used in very particular circumstances.

Following the initial ban in 2017, we noticed a real change. The school was much noisier for a start; people were talking to each other. But even though pupils couldn’t have their phones out, a buzzing in the pocket is still enticing. Pupils were still checking their phones and sneaking a look in between classes; sending a quick message here and there. Since removing the temptation completely, it has been really transformational.

Every area of school life has improved. Both teachers and pupils report that behaviour is better. Every school has handled incidents of cyber bullying, but this has completely fallen off a cliff for us. It has been really significant. Academic focus is far better and over the past five years, we’ve seen a strong improvement in academic results, which I would say is partially attributable to the ban.

The students report that they love meal times now because they sit and chat with each other. It is nice to see.

Our 17 to 18-year-olds love this ban the most. They say it is fantastic. Teenagers aren’t stupid; they know they need boundaries. They have told us how their sleep is much better thanks to reduced screen time. The younger ones complained about it initially, but now they have accepted it and enjoy the freedom it gives them.

Of course, for pupils in a boarding school, mobile phones are a key way of contacting home. We ask parents not to expect an immediate response from their children during the school day. If there’s an emergency, we’ve got staff on the end of the phone 24 hours a day.

Focus has drastically improved but it’s not about whether we’re shifting an A to an A*. It’s about whether children are engaging with their learning. Are they engaging in the classroom? Are they having meaningful, intellectual discussions? Or are they just thinking, when can I next look at my phone?

Children everywhere are addicted to phones. Social media apps are designed to make young people addicted to them. They are designed to release lots of little bursts of dopamine: short, sharp hits, not long, meaningful serotonin. It’s the difference between a peck on the cheek and a meaningful hug.

We have to get away from this idea that somehow we can give young people unlimited access to a phone and teach them how to use it responsibly; the teenage prefrontal cortex is not developed enough for teenagers to resist the addictive nature of mobile phone apps. I felt this was something we could do something about. We all have a responsibility to be the grownups in the room and to work out what we can do to make their lives better.

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