France Will Ban Cell Phones in Elementary Schools

CC BY 2.0. photoglovey -- "Mirror, mirror..."

Starting September 2018, students under age 15 will not be allowed to use their phones at any point during the school day.

France's education minister has announced a mobile phone ban, taking effect in September 2018. The ban will apply to all primary, junior, and middle school students, up to the age of 15, and means that students will not be allowed to use their phones during breaks, lunch, or recess, in addition to class time, where they're already banned.

The minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, is calling it a "matter of public health." He's quoted in the Local, an English-language newspaper in France:

"These days the children don't play at break time anymore, they are just all in front of their smartphones and from an educational point of view that's a problem."

Reactions have been negative, for the most part. Teachers are concerned about how such a ban would be implemented. While Blanquer's ministry is working on figuring out those details, he has suggested stashing phones in lockers at the start of the day, which is what he and his colleagues do before cabinet meetings; but as Philippe Vincent, head of the French headteachers' union points out in The Guardian, schools have little room for locker installations:

"Are we going to transform a school into a giant locker? I’ve done a little calculation myself: 5,300 state schools with an average 500 pupils each, that makes around 3 million lockers."

Parents worry about not being able to get in touch with children, and say that leaving phones at home is not an option, since they want contact during the trip to and from school.

While Vincent does have a point, I think Blanquer deserves praise for his decision. There is no reason for children and young teens to be handling mobile phones at any point throughout the school day. They're surrounded by peers, teachers, and classroom-based technology. Personal phones do not contribute meaningfully to the school environment; if anything, they detract from it by fuelling social media-based dramas and cyberbullying, and distracting students from lessons. From Quartz:

"According to a 2015 working paper published by the London School of Economics, schools that banned mobile phones saw test scores for their 16-year-olds improve by 6.4%, or the equivalent of adding five days to the school year. 'We found that not only did student achievement improve, but also that low-achieving and low-income students gained the most,' economists Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy told the BBC."

This makes me think of an interview I heard on CBC Radio last month between Michael Enright and Clive Thompson, a Canadian technology journalist. Thompson said that his biggest concern isn't even the screens themselves but what gets left out of kids' lives when they spend so much time on them. It's the loss of all those things they're not doing that is most tragic.

Blanquer's ban addresses this point. I don't think anyone should view the ban as an attack on mobile phones, but rather as a realigning of priorities to ensure that young students spend time interacting with each other, learning how to converse and resolve difference face-to-face, and even getting used to the idea of being bored and alone with oneself. I believe such a ban will result in smarter, more resilient and communicative young adults.