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Connecting effectively

3/10/17: At the start of the year Bryanston introduced a new mobile phone policy. Here Dr Preetpal Bachra, Head of Pastoral, explains the thinking behind the policy.

Amongst the great challenges for schools is the ability to guide and foster every aspect of a child’s development whilst coping with the dynamic world that we all live in. There are balances and counter-balances to any strategy or resource used as part of processes to meet those challenges. For example, if understanding the individual is at the heart of what Bryanston proposes, then that could be interpreted as having an educational environment designed specifically for each pupil – 680 different classrooms, teachers, etc. Rather we work with pupils as individuals to help them better utilise the structures on offer and to help children make decisions for themselves – as Nanny McPhee would say, “When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.” The challenge for teachers and parents, therefore, is to work with pupils and, as a parent of two boys approaching their teens, I am well versed in the oft played record of, “Why won’t you listen/do/not do?*” (*delete as applicable) which after bed is replaced by, “What am I doing wrong/not doing/done to deserve?*” (*ibid) record. Perhaps M. Scott Peck’s opening assertion of The Road Less Travelled of “Life is difficult. This is a great truth. One of the greatest truths” is never more relevant than when dealing with children (though there will be many a work place manager that would say “adults ain’t so easy either”). 

At the start of the academic year 2016/17 I was given a brief by Sarah Thomas of devising a strategy for mobile phone usage at Bryanston and I embarked on an eight-month exploration of investigating other schools, talking to pupils, examining the classroom usage and wading through the litany of literature from divergent philosophies. There were some surprising outcomes and I should share some of them here. 

Some independent schools gained favourable media coverage by banning mobile phones altogether. However, at the chalk face, teachers still struggled with the distractions provided by other electronic equipment and the ability to use social media and distraction therein. Some pupils went underground with phone usage and this had to be detected. In short, a ban didn’t always mean they weren’t used. Phones can become the moonshine of the modern boarding school under those restrictions. 

Some pupils here stated adults as having the ‘problem’ (and who is reading this on their phone or tablet right now?). The hypocrisy of banning phones to reduce negative impact on well being and increase social interaction was not lost on some of our pupils. 

Some pupils evidenced their positive usage of phones – sending messages of support to friends, organising lessons or work or checking the portal. Some share data, ask questions, offer or receive peer support, collaborate. In some ways they ‘connect’ with each other too and Johann Hari provides a thought-provoking plea for the importance of socially connecting, albeit not virtually. 

We know there are now issues of cyber bullying, self-criticism, media persuasion, peer abuse, and every school will, at some stage, deal with at least one of these. The easy solution to these issues is to ban phones if they are proved to be the most impactful medium for these behaviours, although authors such as Arik Sigman suggest that some of the effects of screen time have already had an impact on pupils well before they are of secondary school age. 

The more challenging model is to work with pupils, to integrate, regulate and teach. In effect, to take a Bryanstonian view of the problem. This has meant a policy that focusses on courtesy, i.e. when phones can and can’t be used and robust responses for being discourteous. It will lead to an understanding of when phones should and shouldn’t be used. It has meant having ‘staged’ access to phones, as the younger the pupil the less likely they will be to have developed good social skills. 

The D year group have just experienced an excellent day led by HumanUtopia, which focussed on building hope, resilience, confidence and happiness. The PSRE programme is being developed to nurture those skills. We are looking now at the wholesale use of technology too. 

If we are brave we should consider teaching pupils to use technology positively – appropriate social media profiles, how to use virtual working, how to connect effectively, but never at the expense of human contact. The old adage goes that qualifications will get you the job interview but qualities will get you the job. Our goal is to develop both in the child, so that ultimately they won’t need us. If we achieve that, then that really would be nurturing the individual.