Principal's Message

Principal’s Message – End of Term 1, 2024

Kia ora koutou

I have written to whānau on a couple of occasions about the new government regulations for cell phone use in schools and the need for schools to have a policy in place for cell phone usage at school. Earlier this term we shared a draft cell phone policy with our teachers, students and whānau asking one question: “Do you agree with the Wellington High School draft cell phone policy, as written?” and the invitation to comment. I wanted to take this opportunity to share the feedback from the surveys here before we introduce our policy at the start of term two.

Firstly, we surveyed our teachers and this was their response with 5 being strongly agree and 1 being strongly disagree. Based on 53 staff responses, 4 disagreed with the policy as written with the vast majority of respondents agreeing with what was written.

Teachers told us that they wanted students to be able to use their phones for learning purposes. Some teachers also talked about students listening to music during working time, the importance of support from home through contact during the day for some, and exceptions for health and special learning needs, and neurodiverse needs.

We surveyed students and whānau at the same time with overall responses below.
We had 292 responses from students with 5 meaning strongly agree and 1 meaning strongly disagree.

I suppose those results aren’t surprising but I enjoyed the comments made by students. These comments focused on areas of the draft policy that weren’t clear to them such as break times, EOTC, and rōpū. They also cited organisational uses, learning uses and problems that they saw with the policy eg parents phoning the office.
Some general student comments were:

“I think we should be able to listen to music in class time, and to contact parents”
“…I think not taking your phone to school is completely unreasonable and unsafe as someone who walks home from school alone.”
“Phones should be able to be used for music at the teachers discretion – it helps me and a lot of people focus”
“… sorry i don’t want my mum calling the school about my gynaecologist appointment”
“I think it’s good to not have them in class unless needed, but it’s dumb to not have them at lunch because we need to contact our friends”
“Students should be allowed to take their phone to EOTC events for communication and transportation.”
“Phones are already heavily discouraged in class, and these rules are not going to change the amount of students using their phones, as it is already taboo, but put more stress on teachers to uphold these rules.”
“I think it’s really close-minded. As someone with ADHD I have a lot of struggles with concentration, however, my biggest distraction is the people around me. Having the ability to listen to music through my phone is really helpful in shutting out external distractions, thus keeping me on task and stopping me from distracting others around me.”
“…The people who did not use their phone in good practice will simply just look for a different way to distract themselves, using their laptop in bad practice, talking to their friends around them, simply just sleeping, etc … If someone is a chronic gambler and everyday puts 5 dollars into a slot machine, and you wanted to stop them from gambling, removing this 5 dollar slot machine will get them to move to the next slot machine rather than stop gambling.”
“It’s dumb, I am four months from turning eighteen and becoming a full adult. I’m over sixteen, if I can be trusted to have sex I can be trusted with my phone. If it’s impacting my learning that’s on me.”
“I think this is a great policy, however I believe books should also be banned as they serve as a distraction to many students, who could read them instead of doing important classwork. Laptops also should be banned as many distracting applications could be used on them and easily hidden from teachers. Pencils and pens should be banned too, as students may play with them, stopping them from doing work. I also believe that eyesight should be banned as students could see something that would distract them, such as a bird or a poster. I also think that humour should be banned, as if somebody is to say something funny, students could be laughing and therefore not doing work, which is all they should be doing ever, like a normal person. This should also all be applied at interval and lunch, as during that time students should be doing nothing but sitting idly and eating food, like a normal person.”

We received 517 responses from whānau (just under a third of the school) with over 400 of those responses agreeing with the draft policy. Again 5 is strongly agree and 1 is strongly disagree.

There were a variety of responses and I have categorised a sample of these below.
Some took aim at the government – one was not printable here but amused some of us greatly:

“My wife and I work 50 hours each and providing our kids with cellphones have helped us communicate with them when working late, when they’re going to friends places, emergencies etc. Frankly this is a moronic ban from the government which serves no purpose aside from scoring old white voters. I really hope the school sees that and pushes back. “
“ I am sorry that the school is having to waste time and effort in formulating and administering a policy to address a political party policy directed at a non-existent problem.”
“Finally, while I realise this is coming from Govt but seriously these are teenagers who are learning to drive, going into the workforce etc not small children! “
Some comments of support:
“A sensible policy that moves towards reducing the impact phones can have in distracting learning but does not go over the top”,
“Support approach of the current policy and management of any issues as per any other.”

Concerns about phones being switched off:
“We absolutely do not want his phone off (as opposed to silent) during class for this reason [parents’ work structure], and trust him as an adult to adhere to basic rules & focus in lessons.“
“Having a very anxious child with health school involvement, and concern over their safety, having their phone on in class has enabled me to help them identify when they aren’t doing well and to follow the plan agreed with the school.”

Concerns about how exemptions would work:
“I appreciate there is an element of ‘exemption’ that needs to be implemented and I wonder how this can be done in ways that do not unintentionally ‘other’ some rangatahi – especially when we think of the unique learning support needs of some ākonga.”
“My young person has an official ADHD diagnosis, he struggles to concentrate in class with noise and distractions from his peers. Wearing headphones and listening to music helps enormously (how do we as parents support our neurodiverse rangatahi with such allowances in class while others do not get to use their phones in this way?).”

Students with medical needs and the need for a phone to be on:
“I want my kid to be able to have her phone with her at all times and on, including during class. This is really important to her as a disabled kid and us as disabled whanau.”
“For health reasons I would prefer to have my daughter to have her phone on silent. So we can check she is ok as she has epilepsy and sometimes we need to verify her location.”

Civil defence:
“Can you consider and ensure the school have provisions for safety warnings by the government? For example Emergency Mobile Alerts (sent by Civil Defense when there is threat of earthquake, tsunami or other calamities). Can the school have a plan how students will receive those warnings in timely /urgent manner?”

Criticisms of our policy:
“Compared to the other colleges I have kids at the guidelines are quite loose. I’m not sure they will provide teachers with enough tools to uphold the no phones in class policy.”
“The policy should be stricter. Phones should not be allowed to be used at any time on the school grounds, unless teacher has permitted for learning purpose or permission has been sought”
“Students who repeatedly use their phones at school without permission from a teacher should have to hand them into the office at the start of the day, so that they are not a distraction to both themselves and their peers.“

Over the last term, we consulted widely with our community and, based on that consultation, we created a policy that we feel will work for our context, based on our experience in this space. We know that we will not please everyone – that is just not possible as you can see in the summary results above – but we will respond to what our community wants from us overall – that is our job. We will also review our policy towards the end of term two and see if we are achieving our aims.

It is worth noting that not a single teacher, parent or student had raised the issue of cell phone use at school with me in the last seven years, until the regulations were put in place. These regulations were foisted upon schools without any consultation, but with reference to a UNESCO report (“Technology in education: A tool on whose terms”) which raises good questions about the effect of technology in education.

The report is wide ranging (the section on technology in education is just under 200 pages) calling on governments all over the world to “ensure that learners’ best interests are placed at the centre” when considering the adoption of new technologies and that “digital technology should not replace but instead complement face-to-face interaction with teachers”.

“The report underscores the importance of learning to live both with and without digital technology; to take what is needed from an abundance of information but ignore what is not necessary; to let technology support, but never supplant, the human connection on which teaching and learning are based. The focus should be on learning outcomes not digital inputs. To help improve learning, digital technology should be not a substitute for but a complement to face-to-face interaction with teachers.” (page v – short summary)
Our school was an early adopter of BYOD in 2010 and the challenge has always been to use technology to complement the teaching and learning, or as Audrey Azoulay writes in his foreword to the UNESCO report: “… as a means, never an end.”

One of the key messages in the first chapter (“Technology in Education”) of the UNESCO report is very worrying and it is one that our current Government has picked up on (p3): “mere proximity to a mobile device was found to distract students and to have a negative impact on learning in 14 countries, yet less than one in four have banned smartphone use in schools”. You can read more about the meta-analysis of research from 2008-2017 that led to this finding on page 83 of the report. It describes mobile phone use across these studies as having a ‘small negative effect” which was “larger at the university level. The decline is mostly linked to increased distraction and time spent on non-academic activities during learning hours. Incoming notifications or the mere proximity of a mobile device can be a distration, resulting in students losing their attention from the task at hand.” However, it also reports that “… negative effects are also reported in students from the use of personal computers for non-academic activities during class, such as internet browsing, and in their peers who are in view of the screen.” We know this. We see it and we talk to students about it. Hopefully, we will not be dealing with a ban of all technology soon.

Further in the report (key messages on page 145 and further information from page 158 onwards) there is information about countries and states that are banning telephones or other technology from schools. One finding here is from our neighbours in Australia where bans on mobile phones exist in NSW (primary schools), Tasmania (all public schools) and Victoria (all public schools). Interestingly, the report says (p159) “a poll of 1,070 people in Australia found that 2 in 3 respondents strongly or somewhat supported implementing digital safety programmes to educate students on how to safely use mobile phones rather than banning all students from using mobile phones in schools”.

I am happy that the issue has been raised. I would prefer that we engaged in a good debate about UNESCO’s findings and sought solutions through good consultative practices rather than headline grabbing, political bans. In the absence of consultation, this is why we sought your opinion, and that of our students and our teachers.

If you only have time to skim the UNESCO report, have a look at the brief photo case studies between chapters that highlight the use of technologies in different settings. I also draw your attention to an excellent piece by our own Caspar Levack (Y12) writing for the Spinoff late last year – “I’m a high school student. Here’s why National’s phone ban is a bad idea.”

Finally, I hope you are able to spend some quality time with your young person(s) during the upcoming break. We look forward to seeing everyone back, well-refreshed and recharged on Monday 29 April.

Dominic Killalea