I have secured the debate to allow the House to consider mobile phone technology and how best we can deal with the problems, particularly bullying, presented by that developing industry. In addition, I want to go further and to present a solution that can enhance education as well as minimising bullying. Mobile phone technology in our schools is both a challenge and an opportunity.
There are an estimated 61 million mobile phone connections in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that 95 per cent. of young people between the ages of 11 and 21 have access to a mobile phone. Furthermore, it is estimated that there are 2.5 million mobile phone users aged between 10 and 16. The market is worth something like £500 million per annum to the airtime providers.
Young people are fascinated by the technology, and mobile phones constitute one of their most treasured possessions, but there is a dark side to the fascination. For children who wish to bully others, the technology provides a new dimension to their capacity for intimidation. Along with text bullying, the bizarre and inappropriately named practice of "happy slapping" has provided new technological refinements for the age-old playground bully.
The time is now right for the House to consider how to deal with the problem. In his recent report on school behaviour and discipline, Sir Alan Steer said that
"mobile phones are now part of daily life and have changed the way in which individuals and organisations communicate. We are deeply concerned at some of the negative impacts which mobile phones including camera phones are having on school discipline and pupil safety. This is not simply a case of ring tones disrupting lessons. Mobile phones are sometimes used to convey inappropriate text messages as a form of bullying and harassment. Some pupils have used mobile phones to invite aggressive parents to schools so the parent can challenge teachers' rights to punish misbehaviour. Pupils with mobile phones may also find themselves bullied or have their phones stolen with a particular risk within some communities of mugging on the way to school. We believe pupils should be discouraged from bringing mobile phones to school. It is obviously unacceptable for pupils to have phones switched on in a lesson. We support head teachers who, having considered the community in which their school is situated and consulted parents, decide to ban mobile phones."
The report clearly states that schools cannot ignore the choices presented by this new and developing technology. We must strive to prevent the abuse of the technology and look at how pupils can engage with it.
Many schools just ban mobile phones, but I know of none that have been able to enforce that. Anecdotally, I believe that some schools in the US use cell blockers to stop the signal within the confines of the school. That is an effective but somewhat draconian solution that is not popular with either parents or teachers.
The practice of happy slapping, described by The Guardian as a
"youth craze in which groups of teenagers armed with camera phones slap or mug passers by", is just the most extreme form of mobile phone bullying. The children's charity NCH reported last year that 14 per cent. of youngsters had experienced text bullying, and that 50 per cent. of that text bullying occurred in the school environment. In addition, the story of Kyle Parker in Bolton is well documented. That 13-year-old schoolboy was tied to a tree with masking tape in his lunch break, and then set on fire. Mobile phone technology is allowing bullies to advance the forms and styles of bullying tactics that they choose to use.
Recently, a teacher in Runcorn was assaulted by a pupil, and the assault was photographed and distributed by mobile phone. In the west midlands, a boy was injured in a bicycle accident. Young people gathered around and took photographs. They even impeded the emergency services attempting to help the boy as they took more photographs on their mobile phones. Pupils from both primary and secondary schools have told me that bullying like that, and text bullying, are frequently encountered in school life.
Other problems that have been brought to my attention include disruption to classes, cheating in exams, assault and theft. Surf controls have been devised to deal with the challenges presented by the internet and are used in schools but we have yet to develop a firm strategy to deal with a more influential technology. Mobile phones are largely perceived as just a nuisance in schools.
The report on school behaviour and discipline chaired by Sir Alan Steer acknowledges that modern technology can give parents and schools control of pupils' mobiles. It states:
"We note advances in other technologies means it is possible to give parents and schools control of pupils' mobiles. This means it is possible to disable certain phone functions, whilst allowing some numbers to remain active for emergencies. We understand the technology has the ability to operate on a geographical basis, such as within school boundaries. We will be interested to see whether schools make use of this technology in future. However we do not see this as a substitute for schools having a clear policy on the possession and use of mobile phones on the school site, and there being appropriate measures to punish those pupils who do not obey the school rules."
The report continues by outlining a recommendation that
"schools should be required to have a clear policy on the possession and use of mobile phones on the school site, including details of the sanctions, if pupils disobey the policy."
That may be desirable, but it underlines the approach that mobile phones are seen in a negative light.
So far I have outlined the negative aspects of the technology as used in schools. It is easy to let the publicity surrounding some of those horrific acts obscure the very real benefits that could accrue from mobile phone use in schools. There are numerous benefits that could be achieved from mobile phone technology if utilised effectively. Representatives from the industry have informed me that there is a model to deal with some of the problems.
Technologically, it is feasible to have a registration system where the pupil and school are identified and a profile is downloaded to phones that effectively blocks calls from unwanted sources, and restricts the use of cameras and the times when the phone can be used. All of the controls provided by those combined profiles can be imposed by a central provider-based application on the subscriber's telephone. That enables changes to be made to any profile to take immediate effect. It also enables phones to be used for positive educational purposes.
Mobile phones could help to raise standards in schools. For example, on a geography field trip, students could make use of mobile phones to take pictures of a feature or of a plant which could be added to their work. Furthermore, as technology develops, we will see further advances in internet use for our handsets which would allow us to develop and maintain other educational benefits. We could look into ways of forming interactive lessons, enabling students to access lesson plans and extra studies. We could develop software to offer interactive school quizzes. It would even be possible to build into the profile rewards of free texts for those responding in a certain way or finding certain things out through use of their mobile phones.
We have not begun to realise the potential offered by the technology in schools. The industry has tried to work with schools on a very limited basis to protect children, but the incidence of happy slapping demonstrates that that has so far not been successful.