Limited mobile phone use during school hours now a fact of life

Toongabbie Christian College in Sydney’s west has restricted students’ mobile phone usage during school hours for the past decade and the policy is now deeply ingrained in school life: a simple matter of distancing students from their phones, rather than introducing internet signal restrictions. The school, which has 1100 children and teenagers in classes from Kindergarten to Year 12, has altered minor elements of its mobile phone restrictions over the years but the central idea remains the same: to limit the use of devices that distract and isolate the young.

“We don’t see the need for them in the classroom space,” says principal Dr Johan Griesel. “Students have full access to their own devices, and those devices can be used for all the research access they need to have through our network.”

Increasing numbers of independent schools have adopted similar mobile phone restrictions over the years, and most public school systems have followed suit. This April, NSW Premier Chris Minns announced mobile phone usage would be restricted in all NSW public high schools by the end of the year – it is already limited in all NSW public primary schools.

Mobile phone restrictions vary from school to school. A recent “set and forget” signal-jamming alternative for schools offered by Educell raised fears of internet interruptions in neighbouring locations, so most of the schools that have restricted mobile phone usage provide lockable pouches or insist students stash their mobile phones in lockers during school hours.

Some independent school principals think differently. Marise McConaghy, principal of Strathcona Baptist Girls Grammar School in central Melbourne, which does not ban them,  says the devices can be valuable educational tools.

“Banning phones from schools might reduce the impact of use while students are at school, but it will do little once students leave the school grounds,” she has written on the debate. “It certainly won’t prepare them for life beyond the school gates, where there is no teacher standing over them regulating use or forbidding its presence in their lives.”

Dr Griesel says his school’s mobile phone policy has evolved over time, but the intent remains the same: to minimise distractions during lessons. Students were originally instructed to keep their phones turned off during school hours, but temptation proved too much, so he introduced a locker system for the older students. The younger students hand their phones over to a teacher every school day. In general, the students raise few objections, he adds, because it’s a policy that has been in force for their entire school lives.

“Students are also not permitted to use laptops during lunch or recess, unless they have permission … they put them away and engage with their peer groups,” Dr Griesel says.

The Australian