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Schools consider searching pupils' smartphones


By Stewart Mitchell

Posted on 7 Mar 2011 at 13:16

Teachers could get the right to search mobile phone content in a bid to clampdown on cyber-bullying under the new Education Bill.

The bill was introduced into parliament in January and is now being honed in committees, but education officials are split over the need for Draconian rules that would would enable teachers to search a pupil's mobile phone.

Part of the bill's remit is to “help teachers maintain good discipline”, and some teachers believe they should be able to investigate smartphone data to find out whether a pupil had been involved in cyber-bullying.

“Cyber-bullying is the curse of many of our schools. Facebook, YouTube and the stuff that sometimes appears on mobile phones are real issues now in many schools,” said Sir Michael Wilshaw, executive principal at the Mossbourne Community Academy, in a parliamentary committee debate about the bill.

I would not hesitate to take something off, unless I wanted to keep it for evidence to show the parents or to take the matter further

“I would have no hesitation in erasing from a mobile phone something that was deeply offensive to other students. That is very pernicious — it is worse than the fight in the playground.”

Teachers that supported the extended powers also said that data on a phone should be no more protected than existing communications, which are routinely examined.

“I would have no problem in erasing stuff from a mobile phone,” said Sally Coates, principal at Burlington Danes Academy.

“Just as I tear up a piece of paper that has something offensive on it and put it in the bin, I would not hesitate to take something off, unless I wanted to keep it for evidence to show the parents or to take the matter further," Coates said.

"First, they should not have a mobile phone. Secondly, they certainly should have nothing such as that on it."

However, politicians and union leaders have cautioned that giving such control to teachers could land them in hot water with the authorities, and such search powers that could be questioned by human rights activists.

“Is it properly a matter for school staff to examine and erase data from pupils’ mobile devices?” said Labour MP Kevin Brennan during the debate. “Is it sensible for teachers to have more powers than police officers would have under those circumstances, for example?”

Teachers could, say experts, also be unsure of what they were and were not allowed to access under different circumstances, leading to potential legal action from angry parents.

“There is the worry that that could get them in more trouble, because you have a grey area of whether that data was illegal, morally bad or dangerous to know," said Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

"It gets professionals into all sorts of areas where the decisions can be even murkier.”

Lack of enforcement

According to Bousted, there are already sufficient powers in place to take on cyber-bullying, but they are not properly used.

“The complaints that we have had are from members who have felt that their school leadership did not back them up when cyber-bullying was going on or pictures had been uploaded,” she said.

“That included one complaint from a young female teacher, who had a picture put on the web with a naked body substituted for her body, and that was flashed around the whole school," she said, adding the complaint was "not backed up by the leadership of the school".

Bousted called for schools to create specific policies for dealing with digital behavioural issues, and follow them through when teachers tried to enforce them.

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User comments

It doesn't help your credibility it you don't think about what you say...

"First, they should not have a mobile phone"

Mine have phones so they can all home when required by changes in circumstance. I used to have a selection of 2p and 10p coins for pay phones - mine have mobiles. Same thing. Happy to accept that this is not entirely free from issues but "shouldn't have" ignores reality.

By Murph on 7 Mar 2011

School rules

In most schools, there is a rule about the use of mobile phones, this is what was probably the reference.

As for phoning home, there are plenty of telephones in the school the child can use if necessary
- Schools also have phone lines that are incoming.

Stating a child 'must have' a mobile for contact is just not true.

By greemble on 7 Mar 2011


It's all very well for kids to have phones to 'call home when required by changes in circumstance', but that only happens a few times a month, whereas kids will use their phone during every waking moment to text their mates and browse Facebook, even during class.

Few schools have the guts to ban phones, but it would help kids pay attention.

By Stiggy on 7 Mar 2011

Won't Work

I work in a school, not a teacher by the way, and this is a non-starter. Despite what the public think teachers already have far too much to do and looking after society’s ills seems a step too far.

What would happen if a pupil refuses to hand over a phone?

Cyber bullying is a real problem and let’s not forget that a lot of this exists not on the phone but on a website.

Schools have a miriad of rules and enforcing them is a very difficult task.

Would be great if phones were unusable within the school, is there a technology solution?

By bazzer on 7 Mar 2011

Cyber bullying doesn't have to occur in school time - frequently it takes place on the bus home, when kids are already at home, even on weekends.

Just saying kids should't have mobile phones is living in denial of the times we live in, and no more than a school ignoring any kind of bullying.

As for there being lots of telephones in a school a child can use well, that's just not the case.

Also, can you guarantee that emergencies will happen conveniently when school staff are around, when school is open and when everything is perfectly prepared to handle them? Thought not. That's why mobile phones are so useful.

By SwissMac on 7 Mar 2011

Yep mobiles are really useful.

Lots of cyber bullying does happen outside school hours but strangely school is expected to sort it out.

Does make you wonder how we made it through to adulthood when contacting parents was far more difficult.

By bazzer on 7 Mar 2011


I'd love to hear three examples of these 'emergencies' that mobile phones solved.

By Stiggy on 8 Mar 2011

Teachers have more power than the police now?

We only recently decided that the police couldn't take your electronics off you and delete the contents without a court order but we're letting teachers do it?

By steviesteveo on 8 Mar 2011

should not have

The mobile phone is not an essential item at school. It causes more harm than any good it has ever done at school and many schools do ban them with no great problems. Sometimes parents being able to contact students at school or vice versa is the perfect reason to have them banned.

By markos on 9 Mar 2011

Clearly, none of you are school students. I'm sure you believe you are acting correctly when you speak out against mobile phones (oh gosh such evil technology for distracting the children! without mobile phones they would all be perfect students)but I feel obligated to inform you that this is simply not the case. Kids have mobile phones and that is perfectly acceptable. An object does not cause the harm you are talking about, people do.
I also think giving teachers powers police do not have is yet another step towards treating those under 18 as second class citizens. What do you want to teach them about the world you live in?

By galactic on 9 Mar 2011

"First, they should not have a mobile phone." That is not realistic. Instead of trying to ban technology it should be embraced and used constructively in classrooms.

"I'd love to hear three examples of these 'emergencies' that mobile phones solved."

Two weeks ago there was an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. All the schools in Christchurch, mine included, were evacuated and most if not all would not have let students leave without their parents. The buildings, with their landlines inside, needed to be checked before reentry was allowed. This wasn't realistic when people were trapped under buildings in town. Additional scenarios could include: a student avoiding being raped on her way home by calling police or a group of students letting police know that they are barricaded in a bathroom while a shooter is loose around the school. Please tell me what use "plenty of telephones" are in a true emergency.

Searching smartphones is not addressing the issues that cause bullying, nor will it stop messages and pictures that have already been posted on Facebook and passed around half the school. It will, however, undermine students' right to privacy. Searching through a phone, or any electronic device, is different to reading a note and throwing it in the bin. Phones contain photos, emails, text messages and schedules. Searching through a phone is more like searching through someone's bedroom at home. It is invasive and is not a solution to cyber-bullying.

By MattTaylor on 9 Mar 2011

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