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Tech in use in a French schoool: France has announced mobile phones will be banned from primary and junior schools from next academic year (©HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images)

I am the Headmistress of a school called Michaela, a free school in inner-city London, trying to make a difference. We opened in 2014 and we have been straining to increase opportunity for our working-class kids ever since. The good news is that so far we have been winning the fight. The bad news is that the technology epidemic is one hell of a weapon in the enemy’s arsenal.

Visitors to our school often ask me what has been our biggest obstacle. I used to say our detractors. Protesters demanding the closure of free schools outside our gates, or letters/emails/tweets shouting abuse or even death threats are hard to handle. We also have to manage the absence of a sports hall and sports fields (we don’t have any grass at all) and tightening budgets. Finding excellent teachers is also hard. But none of that compares to the fight we have against technology.

In the last few weeks, I have had dozens of individual meetings with our Year Ten families as we prepare for 2019 when their children will take their GCSE exams. In some of the meetings, both the child and the parent will say that the child is doing too much homework, that the school should expect less of them. The parent knows the child has their smartphone next to them during homework time, giving them access to video games, Snapchat, Instagram, Netflix, WhatsApp and YouTube.  Yet the parent is still convinced that their child is doing their homework properly.

I then try to explain to the parent why I think this is dangerous, as I have done at assembly to the children. Several of the big tech CEOs don’t allow their children to own smartphones and when they are older don’t allow them unsupervised access to the internet on their phones. Steve Jobs, when asked what his children thought of the iPad when it came out in 2010, said they had not tried it because he thought it was too dangerous. Both he and Bill Gates preferred their children to spend time around the dinner table talking about books and history. Imagine that: these big tech CEOs pack their houses with real books with pages to turn!

This is always eye-opening for our parents. They, like me, had no idea. In fact, I hear stories from parents who have saved for months in order to get their child a new smartphone for their birthday. Some of them then look to me in desperation, saying that the present they saved up for now monopolises and controls their child.

For parents who are still unconvinced, I suggest that these CEOs must know something we don’t know.  They must have inside knowledge. They are protecting their own children from what they are selling to our children. I explain how the tech CEOs remind me of Snoop Dogg, who sells rap to other people’s children, yet doesn’t allow his own children to listen to his music.

At this point, I can usually see the penny beginning to drop. Except it is often too late. Their child is already addicted. That’s because of what the insiders know that we don’t know. They know that they adapt their product constantly to make it more and more addictive because that means they’ll make more money. Get the kid hooked when he is a toddler and you have him for life.
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Mike B
April 9th, 2018
10:04 PM
A thoroughly enjoyable read and I agree with many of your assertions! I think the issue however, is that schools unintentionally perpetuate mobile phone usage; either through lax phone policies or understandably encouraging students to use their phones to access apps (Show My Homework) and revision websites. Also, although a fairly trivial comment, your Snoop Dogg comparison is inaccurate. He actually encourages his children to listen to his music to expose them to the harsh realities of the world!

Dodgy Geezer
March 26th, 2018
10:03 AM
DON'T bann access to things! There are few better ways to encourage a teenager to do something than to forbid it. And as for making it inaccessible, do you really think you can erect technical barriers which a 14-year old can't break? The answer lies in education and awareness, not in control...

March 3rd, 2018
1:03 PM
Excellent article Totally agree with all points. Despaired for years watching in classroom 5 minutes work out of 40 minutes lesson. Tragedy is devices have assistive tools which are ignored / not used by those with literacy or numeracy LD. Would add: Funds for smartphone and plan mean less for nutritious food. What to do in USA ? where students have device as life saving tool to warn of lockdowns, keep in touch caregiver

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