Answering the call

By Jock Percy, a senior analyst atACE*COMM, an operations support systems solutions provider (THE GUARDIAN, 30/03/06):

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s (QCA) annual report, released on Friday, found that more than 1,000 pupils were disqualified in last year’s public exams for taking mobile phones into the exam hall.While this is a fairly small percentage of those taking examinations, it is indicative of a much larger trend. The report concluded that many of the miscreants were penalised simply for having the phones in their pockets, having brought them in unintentionally. This highlights the fact that for today’s teenager, the mobile is so much an essential item, that it is unthinkable not to have it available at all times.

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) responded to the QCA’s findings by pointing out that there is no place for mobiles in the classroom, let alone the exam room, and the chief executive of the QCA, Ken Boston, has written to all schools and colleges to stress that mobile phones are not allowed in exam locations.

But with the mobile phone becoming such an essential part of youth culture, we must question whether it is realistic to expect school pupils to leave their mobiles at home for an entire school day. A recent study by analysts Future Laboratory found that mobile technology is changing communication habits, and creating new social trends.

The introduction of video messaging, camera phones, high-speed data transfer and digital content on mobiles, have all led to a revolution in the way young people use mobiles, and increased the importance of phones in the social life of their users. More and more, teens are relying on their mobiles to hold together their social networks, as well as for much of their entertainment.

The DfES must see that with mobiles holding this kind of position in the life of a teenager, it is unlikely that schools will be able to persuade pupils to leave at home what they see as a crucial part of daily life.

Given the crucial status of the mobile, parents and teachers must look at the alternatives to trying to prise teens away from their phones. Undoubtedly phones interrupt studying, and of course should not be taken into exams because of the potential for cheating, but they remain an important accessory for many.

Recent research into teenagers’ use of mobiles found that 48% of UK teens admitted to texting friends during school hours. UK teens were twice as likely as German teens to play video games on their mobile while in school (20% compared with 10%) and three times as likely (30%) as German teens (9%) to talk to their friends on their mobiles while in school.

The online survey, carried out by Itracks on behalf of ACE*COMM, polled 2,000 teenagers and found that those in the UK are far more likely to use their mobiles in ways their parents would deem inappropriate, compared with teenagers in Germany and the United States.

Parents increasingly expect to be able to contact their children at all times, especially in the light of fears of terrorist attacks and growing concerns about protecting children from abuse and harassment. As the age at which children are given mobile phones is decreasing all the time, it is obvious that parents are keen on the safety aspect mobiles provide, as well as the convenience for coordinating busy schedules.

So, if schools are concerned about children bringing their mobiles into lessons and exams, they need to work with parents to find a suitable solution that allows teens still to use mobiles for the social networking that they need outside lesson times, and for parents to be able to contact their children in emergencies.

If children cannot be trusted to use their phones appropriately, a more effective way of preventing inappropriate use during school hours is for parents to sign up to services that allow them to monitor their children’s phone use and block outgoing calls and messages during lesson times.

These kinds of services are available in America, and allow individual and flexible policies to be applied such as no messaging during particular hours, certain numbers to be blocked at all times, or certain numbers, such as parents’ emergency contact numbers, to be always allowed.

Service providers in the UK need to wake up to the demand that parents and teachers would have for this kind of service. The QCA’s findings highlight the fact that there is a need for schools to be able to manage children’s reliance on mobiles, and that parents should take on the responsibility for instilling the necessary values about appropriate behaviour concerning mobiles.

A flexible parental monitoring service that allows limits to be placed on phone use during lesson (and exam) time would reassure parents that they can still contact their children in an emergency, while still allowing pupils to use their phones during breaks and free time, causing less uproar than an outright ban on mobiles in schools.