The headmaster who banned mobile phones… and now wants to bring back textbooks
Stepping into the office of Mr Peter Phillips – freshly anointed as Britain’s best prep school head – feels like stepping back in time. Hung along the walls are sketches of former bespectacled head boys, a clarinet sits in an open case, and a tartan ottoman heaves with teapots and pastries.
But more unusual for the head of a busy school of 261 day pupils and boarders, is that he has no computer, laptop or mobile phone. A landline receiver sticks out from paper on his mahogany desk.
The lack of technology is no accident. Mr Phillips, as all good teachers before him, is leading by example. As one the few heads brave (many might say foolhardy) enough to insist on not just a digital detox but an all-out blackout, smartphones are banned and other technology such as laptops and tablets are restricted at S. Anselm’s, an independent prep school and college for three-to-16-year-olds set in bucolic Peak District countryside that costs up to £24,900 a year, and has just been recognised in Tatler’s School Awards.
Mr Phillips is in good company, given that Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, and Apple’s Steve Jobs heavily restricted their own children’s tech-time. (Gates didn’t allow them to use mobiles until they were 14 and banned tech at mealtimes, while Jobs limited his children’s use of iPads at home because he thought they were addictive.)
The threats facing schools have changed. Walk through playgrounds or corridors and instead of happy chatter, shrieks and whoops, you’ll be met by the tap-tap-tapping of buttons, faces illuminated by screens and pings from incoming Snapchats.
Yet the problems faced by a generation of screen junkies hooked on devices are well documented. The Office for National Statistics reported that children who spent three hours or more on social media during the school day reported more than twice the number of mental health problems than those who spent no time online.
Doctors have likened the effects of tech addiction on young minds to cocaine dependence. Reliance can breed anxiety, fuel low self-esteem and gives bullies an anonymous 24/7 playground. So it’s for those such as Mr Phillips, who are leading the charge against the new digital order, that we should be grateful.
“I firmly believe that electronic devices of any type have no place in childhood,” he confirms. “Phones are a burden and self-absorbing. They shackle people and are a distraction. What I want is for children to be unburdened and not distracted so they can concentrate on each other. When TV first came around, there was this obsession with only watching a certain amount in case it was bad for your brain. Now, in 2017, we are dealing with a not dissimilar problem.”
If S. Anselm’s pupils want to call home, they can use a landline in the school office. Anyone found with an illegal device is suspended – something that has happened just twice in four years; two strikes, and you’re out. The policy, he admits, doesn’t make him popular; still, he doesn’t “see anyone weeping in the corridors because they have no phone”, and says it has fostered a happier, freer climate within which children can exercise their imagination.
Six years ago, he banned phones at his previous school, Cundall Manor in Yorkshire, and it’s estimated a third of schools have followed suit.
At an Independent Association of Prep Schools conference this year, he was just one of two out of 60 to outlaw smartphones. “I was looked upon as though I was some sort of fruitcake,” laughs Phillips, described by the Good Schools Guide as not belonging “to the pin-striped, lapel-tugging, bullfrog school of heads”. But as well as battling against accepted digital norms, he has the parents to contend with.
“The other real problem for parents is their inability to say no. It has got worse over the years. Some parents are frightened of their children. It might be guilt. It might be that they both work, maybe they find it hard to balance work and life and as a consequence find it difficult to say no. But children do respond well to being told no.”
On the whole, it has gone down well. His announcement of the plan to ban phones at a school speech day five years ago, soon after he had joined as S. Anselm’s headmaster, was met by a applause from parents. Last week, a mother from York told him they had chosen S. Anselm’s because of the ban.
The question of whether it causes children to binge when they get home, he says, is out of his hands, but the hours they spend at school should be free from digital pressures.
A growing body of evidence supports Mr Phillips’s stance. Schools where phones are banned saw scores improve 6.4 per cent for 16-year-olds and by 12.2 per cent for lower achieving students, according to a 2015 study by the London School of Economics.
Gradually, others are picking up the mantle, too. This summer, Stroud High School announced a ban on phones and smartwatches to ease pressure on body image. The head of Wensleydale School in Yorkshire had planned to install a jamming system to block signals until she realised it was illegal.
It’s not just phones that encroach on learning; Mr Phillips is worried about textbooks disappearing. “The demise in textbooks is serious, and soon they will have gone completely because everything is heading online,” he says. “It is already happening.”
Last month, a TES-YouGov survey revealed that less than one in 10 teachers thought they’d still be using textbooks in most or all lessons by 2020, and Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, has previously lambasted the growing “anti-textbooks ethos” in schools to cut costs.
If subjects such as history or geography lend themselves to new media, for others such as English, textbooks are irreplaceable. “They change how you digest things and slow the process down,” says Mr Phillips. “It gives children security. Something to revise from. We are very textbook-driven. A nice healthy balance is hugely important.”
He is at pains to make clear he’s not advocating a return to the dark ages. The school has an innovation studio filled with robotic equipment, 3D printers and computers. They teach coding and programming from age six and over-13s are allowed laptops in some lessons under supervision.
“I don’t want to give the impression we are some sort of dinosaur set up resisting change. That’s not the case.”
More, it’s about children learning to self-regulate their screen time and developing and maintaining an awareness of life outside devices. “What we are trying to create, and have created, is an oasis where children can be children for as long as possible.”
As morning break begins, we wander through the school, weaving in between children spilling out of classrooms, arm-in-arm. Two boys queue up to show Mr Phillips their swimming medals. Noise fills the halls as pupils catch up with friends face-to-face, concerned only with real life playing out in front of them.