Wimbledon's Phone Away Boxes are only used by years 7 and 8. Picture: Phone Away Box
November 20, 2023
A Wimbledon girls’ school has implemented 200 mobile phone lockers as part of its zero-tolerance policy. The school’s deputy head teacher believes this move has helped re-establish the roles of parents, teachers, and students that had been blurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wimbledon High School implemented the Phone Away Box system over the summer holidays. Students arriving in September were now expected to place their phones in clear boxes on their lockers before morning registration, where they must remain till the bell rings at 4pm. The independent girls’ school is the first school in the UK to implement a scheme of this type. Phone Away Box is an Irish company that has also worked with schools in Australia.
Ben Turner, Senior deputy head of Wimbledon High School, spoke to the local democracy reporting service about his school’s decision to adopt the zero tolerance policy. He said, “School life doesn’t end at the end of the school day any more, as it did during our childhoods. There is loads of evidence of the impact of phones on level of interaction and on mental health.
“Children go home and continue to interact with their school friends during the small hours. We felt like we needed to put in some practical measures to help our students make decisions that are right for them. The Phone Away box is part of a broader policy of a zero-tolerance approach to phones, which we have talked a lot about with our parents and students.”
“It has been hugely welcomed by all of our community. The Phone Away boxes are for our year 7’s and 8’s and are housed in their dedicated locker room. It is a visual embodiment of that policy of zero tolerance. It makes it very clear from the moment you come into school what our beliefs about phones should be. The school day is for normal socialisation, education, time in the classroom, and time in clubs. It’s not for whatever’s on my phone. That’s not important.”
“COVID has blurred the lines around the roles of parents, teachers, and students, especially when we live our lives online. The Phone Away boxes are an embodiment of that reassertion of playing those different roles.”
Turner told the LDRS how the new Phone Away Boxes were part of a wider policy of excluding phones from its school. He said: “Our policy also goes beyond that. Our students also go away on trips for three days in the Summer, mountaineering, rock climbing, etc and during that time they are not allowed to bring their mobile phones with them.
“That is hugely popular with them and their parents. The feedback from students has ranged from thanks and praise that it has been really clear. You don’t need phones in a school environment to get the best education.”
According to their website, the Phone Away Box can be applied to offices, gyms, and hospitals. However, Turner told the LDRS how he believes the scheme is most effective when targeting young students.
He said: “We are currently only focusing on years 7 and 8. The lower schools need the additional help to set the standard, and as they progress through school it’s about giving them further responsibility and accountability.
“For example, our year 11s are required to keep their mobile phones in their locker during the day but are allowed to use them in their common room. They can look at it and put it back. They can’t take it around the school site with them, it will be confiscated if they do. It’s about a grading of responsibility and respecting the maturity of the students and helping them make those decisions as they progress up the school.”
While the responses appear to have been largely positive, Turner did admit that his staff did face some scepticism from parents who questioned the viability of the scheme. He told the LDRS: “I had some interesting conversations with some more cynical parents who ask me, ‘what if they bring a fake phone and have another phone on them.’ We are incredibly fortunate that our girls aren’t like that.
“We don’t have that issue of behaviour and deceitfulness. We have foreshadowed the communications before this, and it feels like an evolution, not a revolution.”
Turner also acknowledged that this scheme would not affect girls’ ability to remain safe going to and from school, and that there were processes in place if students needed to contact home. He also mentioned that he supported some parents’ decisions to not give their 11-year-old girls phones at all.
When asked whether he would recommend the scheme to other schools, he told the LDRS: “I’m not sure if it’s for us to recommend to other school communities what they should be doing. It should be organic. Certainly for us though, I can recommend the virtues of having conversations with stakeholders around mobile phones.”
“I think the policy of no mobile phones in schools is the right policy, and I think it’s something all schools should be taking very seriously. I think all schools should think about what practical steps schools can take to support students having a play-based childhood rather than a social media-based childhood. Everyone has to make their own decisions for their own context, but it has certainly worked in our context.”
Karl Hegarty, Co-founder of Phone Away Box, told the LDRS: “We are presently in over 30 Secondary schools in Ireland. The aim is to achieve a more focused and distraction-free school environment. I first came up with the idea of the Phone Away Box when I was the Principal of a school in 2018, and I feel the policy is an extension of my teaching philosophy. There are other alternatives out there to prevent mobile phone distraction, but I believe Phone Away Box is the healthiest solution.”
“I believe as educators, it’s our duty to create an environment where students can reach their potential and Phone Away Box is an initiative that promotes ‘self-control’ which I feel is a vital life skill.”
Harrison Gallivan - Local Democracy Reporter