Students playing and talking to each other during breaks has become the norm again in schools with cellphone bans in place, principals say.
This comes as National leader Christopher Luxon announced the party would ban the use of mobile phones in all schools if elected.
Luxon said a number of schools had come to the decision themselves to ban phones already.
“Mobile phones is being consistently raised with us by principals, teachers and parents.”
He said banning the devices during breaks will help with wellbeing and social skills too.
Some studies had found a 6.5 per cent improvement in learning after a phone ban, Luxon said. Others said it added up to five days to the school year, he said.
Luxon said schools would not be able to opt out of the phone ban and they would be checked they’re complying by the Education Review Office (ERO).
A number of schools, including Diocesan School for Girls, Otago Boys’ High School, Ashburton College and Rotorua Intermediate already have cellphone bans in place during school hours.
Diocesan Schools for Girls principal Heather McRae said the school had banned cellphone use during school hours in 2019 for all students up until the end of Year 10 and had seen a big improvement in the amount of physical activity and social skills.
“You know, they actually talk to their friends and do cartwheels on the lawn and you see a whole kind of liberation of those students at that age,” McRae said.
“The girls talk about, they like having that space without their phone. I think there are real benefits to students going back to more building friendships that aren’t online - the real social skills and social development of the young people.”
McRae said students were allowed to have their phones in their bags but were not allowed to have them out during school hours.
She said they decided to allow the senior students to use phones at school because they were of the age where they needed to learn responsible behaviours and how to moderate their usage and prioritise things like a good night’s sleep.
But McRae said she wouldn’t be averse to banning phones across the board, although she expected there would be a good conversation between the Government and schools before it became a done deal.
“I can see why other countries have gone down that pathway because certainly, I think social media has had a negative impact on young people’s wellbeing and to some extent our wellbeing as well.”
School staff still had to deal with the odd issue that arose around social media and cyber-bullying but it was far less frequent since the ban, she said.
Otago Boys’ High School rector Richard Hall said banning cellphones during school hours was “one of the best things I’ve done”.
The ban was brought in at the start of 2022 because he was noticing boys staring at screens all break instead of interacting and playing, staff were having to deal with too much cyber-bullying and there was no need for them as an educational tool.
Phones were not allowed to be out or even in pockets during the school day and those caught using them had the device confiscated and were given a detention.
Hall said he had seen changes since the policy was implemented and it was now normal to see boys interacting and playing together during breaks. Staff were also spending a lot less time dealing with cyber-bullying.
Hall said he was usually a fan of schools making their own decisions, but in this case he would be supportive of making it compulsory.
“In this case, I think the evidence is clear. I think it’s part of a worldwide trend,” he said.
“I think it’s a very responsible government policy to do that. And I think if everyone was in the same boat then it means that those schools who may find it difficult to do with their community actually have a reason to say, well, ‘it’s ministry policy’.”
St Patrick’s College in Wellington this year also banned phones and accessories such as headphones from being visible on school grounds during the day to remove the distraction of notifications.
Students there also faced confiscation if caught using their phones and staff reported phone use during class was now generally a non-issue, business manager Matt Buck said.
Fellow capital school Queen Margaret College implemented its no-phones policy in 2021 because students were sitting outside texting each other and not engaging in physical activities during breaks, and they were no longer making eye contact with teachers or each other, principal Jayne-Ann Young said.
She said the school asked that students leave their phones at home or in their locker during school hours.
Young said they quickly noticed the younger students playing again during breaks and the older students were making eye contact and talking again.
“When we asked the younger students about this they said, ‘We watched the older students, and they were texting, so we thought that’s what we were supposed to do’. With no phones at morning tea and lunchtime, it almost gave them permission to play again.”
While parental support was not unanimous to start with, most parents were grateful for the policy because they were concerned about their child’s screen time, she said.
Wellington Girls’ College recently changed its rules around cellphone usage so students have to place their phone in a pocket hanging on the wall at the start of each class. The teacher counts the phones and students to make sure everyone has complied.
But students are allowed their phones during breaks.
Year 12 student Tessa Gilhooly told RNZ she was against a full-day ban but liked the school’s new policy.
“It’s really helped me to focus more and I think it’s a really good move.”
Luxon today announced National would introduce a ban on phones for the entirety of the school day, including the morning tea and lunch breaks.
“To turn around falling achievement, students need to focus on their schoolwork during their precious classroom time,” he said.
“That means doing what we can to eliminate unnecessary disturbances and distractions.
“Many schools here and overseas have experienced positive outcomes, including improved achievement, after banning the use of cellphones.”
Luxon said phones would need to be off and away during school hours but it would be up to schools to decide how to manage and enforce it.
Some schools might require phones to be handed in at the start of the day and collected after school, while others may tell students to leave them in their bag or locker, he said.
He said there would be exceptions for students with special circumstances while parents could contact their children via the school office if need be.
But Secondary Principals’ Association president and principal of Papatoetoe High School Vaughan Couillault told RNZ he believed the plan was not necessary.
“Actually what’s best is to empower schools to make decisions that are right for them and their community,” Couillault said.
“I don’t think central [government] controlling banning is the way forward.”
While students weren’t generally allowed to use phones in class at Papatoetoe High School, there were situations where it was appropriate to use them, Couillault said.
“In some lessons they’re away and you don’t see them the whole lesson and other lessons they might be engaged in videoing [a classmate] doing a speech or performing at sport.
“A piece of legislation that bans [phones] won’t instantly stop [inappropriate use] overnight, it will create conflict, it will create a legal requirement for us to confiscate rather than to educate and train students on how to use things appropriately.”
Then there were the practicalities of enforcing a ban with smart devices like watches, he said.
Couillault gave the example of Mt Albert Grammar, which has 3000 students.
“If it took one minute to take a phone and process it off a student at the gate, that’s 3000 minutes of human resource to get everyone’s phone off them in the morning, 3000 minutes in the afternoon, 6000 minutes of phone policing, there’s no time for maths and English.”
Amy Wiggins is an Auckland-based reporter who covers education. She joined the Herald in 2017 and has worked as a journalist for 12 years.
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