National | Schools

School phone ban: How effective will it be?

National announced the policy two months before the election in order to "help students focus and improve their academic outcomes". Photo: RNZ Insight/Tess Brunton

This article was first published on RNZ.

A Wellington secondary school student believes the government’s ban on phones in schools will only force students to be more underhanded and “sneakier” to use their devices.

Meanwhile, an Auckland principal told First Up her school is doing things its own way, which includes classroom use of phones for lessons, plus the opportunity for a student to do a quick catch up on messages.

Monday’s first day of term two sees the cellphone prohibition policy come into effect throughout the country, mandating schools to ensure students don’t use or access to a phone during class time, lunchtime and breaks.

There are some exemptions for health, learning support or special circumstances.

National announced the policy two months before the election in order to “help students focus and improve their academic outcomes”.

During December’s announcement, Minister of Education Erica Stanford said the ban would apply from term two, at which point all schools would be required to have a cellphone policy in place.

But Flo Galvin, a year nine pupil at Wellington High School, has raised doubts over how effective the regulations would ultimately be.

Flo (13) said while phones were a “problem issue” for teenagers, a blanket ban at schools was not the answer.

“I’m definitely addicted to my phone,” she said. “Phones in schools, and phones generally, is a pretty big problem for teenagers, but I just don’t know whether the ban and how they’re trying to do it is going to be effective.

“From experiences of going to a school where phones were banned and people are still on phones and using them, it just feels that nothing is actually going to happen.”

Minister of Education Erica Stanford. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

She said she observed students at her last school, which had a phone ban in place, sidestep the rules.

“From what I knew, at least in my classes and people I knew, not many people followed the rule.

“I’ve been talking about this to friends. [The policy] isn’t actually going to mean that people aren’t on their phones, it just means they’ll be sneakier about it and won’t be caught.

“I don’t know if it’ll be harder to regulate, but I just don’t think it will make a difference.”

Wellington High School outlined its reading on the policy last month, highlighting the “good educational and organisational uses” of cellphones at school.

“We want to implement a policy that acknowledges those purposes.

“If teachers request that students do not use phones in class, we expect our students to comply with that request, except where an exemption is in place.

“In general, students will keep phones, and other small digital devices, silenced and out of sight when they are in class.”

Flo said although prohibiting phones during class time was “totally reasonable”, she would prefer to have the freedom to use it during lunch breaks.

“During break there’s not much of a reason for it and being able to text friends and figuring out where to meet up during lunch is nice, especially in a really big school.”

However some leaders in the sector believe most students had bought into the new regulations.

Albany’s Senior High School began implementing the new rules at the beginning of the year.

Principal Claire Amos said the Auckland school was aiming for consistency “from day one” with the launch of the ban rather than have to change students’ behaviour partway through the year.

“I wasn’t particularly fussed on the policy, I felt like it was a little bit of virtue signalling. I felt like schools were managing this stuff already but at the end of the day it makes it nice and clean.”

With everyone doing the same thing, it made it easy to manage the policy both for students and teachers.

However, the school was doing things its own way and was still allowing students to use their devices as classroom tools, and to check the odd message, including from parents.

“Quite frankly, we’re just putting phones in their place. We don’t want them to distract learning but we also respect the fact that they’re useful tools.”

She said she believed schools should be preparing students for life beyond school.

Amos said she had a lot of faith in young people and believed they were often under-estimated and what they were capable of.

“We’ve got to be realistic and go into this with a balanced approach and working with our young people.”

Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand (SPANZ) president and Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillaut said many schools began phasing in the rules during term one.

“I have to say that students have been extremely compliant in the first part of term one and during the backend when we stopped the ‘education’ and moved into the ‘implementation’.

“People have seemed to have bought into it.”

At Papatoetoe High School, about five phone confiscations had occurred on an average day during term one, Couillaut said.

“Not necessarily the same students, but those students are generally compliant.”

Couillaut said schools need to figure out gathering procedures, although most schools, including Papatoetoe, had opted for the “leave it in your bag” approach.

“For a school of nearly 1800, I simply can’t gather them all at the beginning of the day without eating into curriculum time.”

Another matter for school leaders throughout was around the care of students’ devices, often valued at $1000-plus.

“It’ll get a bit dark and misty if a device gets lost or broken while it’s confiscated and each school will negotiate that as it happens,” Couillaut said.

A pupil of Christchurch’s Burnside High School that RNZ spoke to said the policy was a good move as it removed “distractions from the class”.