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Six things we learned from Damian Hinds about mobile phones

A government minister has said he is “sure all schools” already restrict the use of mobile phones to some extent.

Schools minister Damian Hinds was quizzed about new government guidance encouraging mobile phone bans and about the dangers of screen time for children.

Here’s what we learned from his evidence to the education committee.

1. ‘All schools’ restrict phone use

Hinds said he was “sure all schools have some degree of restriction on using mobile phones”.

Gillian Keegan

“Nowhere is it allowable to pull out your phone in the middle of maths and start doing stuff.”

But he said the government was trying to “create a new norm…we want to make the whole school day free of mobile phones and all that comes with that”.

“There’s never been a pretence that mobile phones aren’t already severely restricted in most schools.”

Announcing the guidance last month, education secretary Gillian Keegan said “around half of schools do not ban mobile phones…and of the half that do, many still allow them in break and lunch times”.

2. ‘Option’ of statutory guidance remains

The minister was also asked if the government would make the guidance statutory if it was not followed.

He said he thought “actually, pretty much everybody welcomes there being that norm”.

“And so I’m not anticipating there being a problem implementing this. But if there were, you’re quite right, that option remains to make statutory.”

3. Hinds shares concerns over school travel contact

The government’s mobile phone guidance set out four “options” for restrictions, but warned it was “not an exhaustive list”.

The first option was no phones on school premises, meaning they “must be left at home or with parents”.

But MPs warned of parents being unable to contact pupils on their way to and from school.

Hinds said they were “real concerns”, and “I think sometimes there has been a misunderstanding of what we’re talking about”.

“So the prohibition that we have talked about is during the school day, it’s not to and from school.

“Of course schools may decide to do something else, something extra. I think that would be a minority. But that is absolutely not what we are requiring. And actually I absolutely get the point about travel to and from school and so on.”

4. Pupils can ‘copy out’ timetables

MPs also raised concerns about pupils being able to access things like online timetables.

Hinds said the government had “thought about” timetables, but “to be honest, we don’t think it is insurmountable to copy out a timetable”.

He said there were “bigger questions about access to digital learning resources and so on”, but added that “typically a phone isn’t the best way to do that actually. Typically you need a bigger screen, the way you sit is different”.

5. Setting a national limit ‘impossible’

During the hearing, Hinds resisted calls to commission guidance from the chief medical officer, Sir Chris Whitty, on “safe” levels of screen time for children.

Hinds said he didn’t disagree with the “underlying principle”, but warned of difficulties in setting a cap.

“Even very small amounts of very harmful activity could be just as bad as relatively quite large amounts of, say, educational, prosocial activity.

“And I think for that reason, trying to come up with the magic number of what’s the limit, I suspect is nigh on impossible.”

He pointed to the recommendation that everyone eat five portions of fruit or vegetables a day, from which “no harm can come”.

“If you were to say two hours a day online is ok, oh boy there is a lot of harm [that] could come. But also there will be many, many people who are online for more than two hours a day, for whom no harm comes.”

6. Online safety law excludes schools to avoid ‘doubling up’

Hinds was also quizzed about why the education technology used in schools was not covered by the new online safety act.

Chair Robin Walker said they had heard evidence that the omission meant “the child on the way to school on the bus has more protections than the same child in the school in the classroom”.

But Hinds said it did not apply because there was “already a set of statutory requirements around child protection and child safety, safeguarding in schools”.

“There is already a much fuller regime because it includes in-person inspection by Ofsted. And in formulating the online safety bill as it then was government was seeking to have a proportionate regime which did not double up on regulatory aspects.”

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