Just when you thought education ministers couldn’t make more of a mess – they do!

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Please tell me Education Secretary Gavin Williamson isn't trying to project an image of Chandler's hard-boiled fictional hero walking "down those mean streets"!

The pressure should be on the Department for Education, and particularly on its ministers, to do something about the bizarre mismatch in schools between positive messages from government about all restrictions being lifted on 19th July and headteachers forced to send home ever more pupil-bubbles or whole year-groups to self-isolate: many schools are becoming almost impossible to keep open.

Really, you’d have thought ministers would be focusing on that crisis. With three weeks more of term still to cope with, school leaders will then be devoting huge chunks of their well-earned (surely never more richly deserved) holidays to plan their return in September: oh, and that’s after dealing with the pig’s ear of exams and parental appeals against results, another issue ministers have ducked.

Don’t be silly! Those dilemmas are far too difficult! Instead, Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson is waging war on mobile phones in schools.

Don’t get me wrong. Phones are a problem and add, as Schools Minister Nick Gibb (a busy boy today, appearing on LBC and BBC Radio 4) reiterated piously, to low-level disruption in classrooms. But, given other more pressing matters, this is at best an irrelevance and at worst a cynical smokescreen to mask the fact that ministers have done little of any use throughout the pandemic (see my earlier rants about their prolonged inaction here, here and here).

Matters of discipline should be left to individual schools and headteachers. A blanket ban from Whitehall is a blunt instrument and mere headline-grabbing micromanagement. Many schools have already banned mobiles: others are planning to do so. For instance, Jane Lunnon, head of the prestigious Alleyn’s School in South London, compares children’s addiction to phones to cocaine use: she’s consulting with parents on both phone-use and the harassment of girls revealed by the Everyone’s Invited website. She’s right to do so: but action taken will be her school’s decision alone.

As it happens, David Banks’s old mate Nick Ferrari interviewed me about that very matter on his LBC news programme today. A subsequent caller described her son, currently at the highly-academic Manchester Grammar School, being encouraged to use his phone in school for research, even during lessons. When I was running Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School, we took the same view: mobiles and tablets can be a boon in the classroom (let alone in lockdown).

But technology is a double-edged sword, creating intractable problems too: schools must chart their own way through this maze, and what worked for me years ago would probably be ineffective now. Most online bullying – sexting, sharing indecent pictures, and the associated harassment and blackmail – happens outside school, on the bus, at home, even at 3am.

Parents, alas, can be reluctant to make a battleground of their children’s mobile-phone use, and there’s a danger in Williamson’s “tick box, job done” solution that they might feel the problem’s been addressed. It hasn’t.

A blanket ban on phones in school might cut low-level classroom disruption, but it won’t tackle the more serious underlying problems of sexual harassment and, indeed, pornography’s perversion of a whole generation’s understanding of sex and relationships.

Williamson’s move is a shameless ploy, and a clumsy one at that. I don’t know how newspapers choose pictures, but he was pictured on the front of The Guardian against a shabby, possibly threatening urban backdrop. I couldn’t help feeling that this was deliberately offering a subliminal reference to Raymond Chandler’s magnificent fictional private eye, Philip Marlowe, a down-at-heel hero of whom Chandler says, “Yet down those mean streets a man must go.”

A previous boss of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, formerly a tough, no-nonsense headteacher, famously pictured himself as Clint Eastwood. If Williamson’s seeking to echo that image, it won’t work for him. In contrast to Wilshaw, Williamson’s demeanour recall’s Some mothers do ‘ave ‘em’s Frank Spencer exclaiming, “Ooh, Betty!” before embarking on another disastrous escapade.

Though it’s a tired joke frequently applied to education ministers, the end of term approaches. His report has to be the classic “Could do better”.

But, then, he could hardly do worse, could he?

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