Smartphones could be banned from growing numbers of classrooms as educators grapple with the pitfalls of mobile devices.
One Waikato high school has barred junior students from bringing smartphones to class, and the head of a secondary principals' group says other schools could follow suit.
Year 9 and 10 students at St Paul’s Collegiate School in Hamilton are prohibited from taking smartphones to school.
Parents there have welcomed the move but one academic is cautioning against any nationwide banning of smartphones, saying it could disadvantage students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
St Paul’s headmaster Grant Lander said the smartphone ban for Year 9 and 10 students was introduced at the start of the year. Senior students are allowed to bring a phone to school but must leave it in a box at the front of their class or drop it off at their day house.
The initiative was prompted by feedback from parents and could be extended to all year levels in the future, Lander said.
In 2018, French lawmakers introduced legislation prohibiting mobile devices – including phones – from school grounds.
And in February, the British minister of state for schools, Nick Gibb, said students should be banned from taking smartphones into school.
Lander said New Zealand schools are grappling with the challenges of having mobile phones in classrooms and favours the Education Ministry taking a lead in addressing the issue.
"Wouldn't it be amazing if, instead of each school fighting their battle, the Ministry of Education or the Government – like the French Government – were actually prepared to make a ruling for everyone?" Lander said.
"Every school is trying to reinvent the wheel and work out what they can do, and work out what level of support they have in their community. I can definitely see a scenario in maybe five or six years time, maybe a lot of schools won't have smartphones anywhere on their school premises because of the issues."
NZ Secondary Principals' Council chair James Morris said smartphones in schools is a "live and active" issue. While the negative impact of phones in the classroom is understood – such as their potential to disrupt children’s learning – the challenge is to mitigate those risks.
Banning smartphones is an option, but most schools prefer to educate students on the appropriate use of mobile devices, he said.
"From time to time, the ban idea will be put into action and I can sympathise with the frustrations that lead to that," Morris said.
"It is likely there will be a trend toward more schools banning them for a period of time before other controls might be able to be found."
Lander said the smartphone ban is a "no brainer" from a health and safety perspective as it prevents students using their phones to hotspot other devices and potentially bypass the school’s safety guidelines.
About a dozen schools have since contacted St Paul’s to inquire about its phone ban and parent survey.
Waikato University senior lecturer Dr Dianne Forbes, who specialises in teacher education and digital learning, said a nationwide ban on phones in schools could disadvantage students from low income families.
Junior students at St Paul’s – a private day and boarding school – are required to have a chromebook while Year 11, 12 and 13 students are required to bring a laptop to school.
Some parents couldn't afford such a requirement, Forbes said.
"I'm in no way critical of St Paul’s Collegiate for their decision. They've listened to parents and they've made a decision," she said.
"But a phone can be a learning tool and they can add hugely to a student’s learning potential when they haven't got access to other devices.
"The average smartphone can be used as a scientific calculator, it’s got a camera that can be useful for documenting learning, there is an ever increasing range of apps that can be used for educational purposes, and it’s got connectivity to the internet."
Forbes said a problem with a French-style ban is it applies to all electronic communication devices, including tablets.
A similar ban was removed from New York City schools in 2015 because it was seen to be penalising students from lower socio-economic districts, she said.
The French ban only applies to students aged under 15.
St Paul’s Collegiate School head of PE and health Craig Hardman said it’s rare to see St Paul’s students using a phone in social settings now. Some students say they feel more relaxed without a phone.
"News [of the ban] has spread quickly. I had a wellbeing director contact me asking me how we did it and I know they're looking to follow suit," Hardman said.
Year 10 student Connor Reeves, 14, said the smartphone ban was accepted by students without issue. Rowing and rugby training takes up much of his spare time and he didn't see the appeal of spending hours on his phone.
Parent Ingrid Waddell has two sons, aged 13 and 15, boarding at St Paul’s and believes the smartphone ban has allowed students to bond more. Banning phones from classrooms also eliminates a variety of problems for teachers, she said.