Schools consider searching pupils' smartphones

Cyber-bullying seen as good reason for allowing teachers to access student Facebook accounts

Stewart Mitchell
7 Mar 2011

Teachers could get the right to search mobile phone content in a bid to clampdown on cyber-bullying under the new Education Bill.

The bill was introduced into parliament in January and is now being honed in committees, but education officials are split over the need for Draconian rules that would would enable teachers to search a pupil's mobile phone.

Part of the bill's remit is to “help teachers maintain good discipline”, and some teachers believe they should be able to investigate smartphone data to find out whether a pupil had been involved in cyber-bullying.

“Cyber-bullying is the curse of many of our schools. Facebook, YouTube and the stuff that sometimes appears on mobile phones are real issues now in many schools,” said Sir Michael Wilshaw, executive principal at the Mossbourne Community Academy, in a parliamentary committee debate about the bill.

I would not hesitate to take something off, unless I wanted to keep it for evidence to show the parents or to take the matter further

“I would have no hesitation in erasing from a mobile phone something that was deeply offensive to other students. That is very pernicious — it is worse than the fight in the playground.”

Teachers that supported the extended powers also said that data on a phone should be no more protected than existing communications, which are routinely examined.

“I would have no problem in erasing stuff from a mobile phone,” said Sally Coates, principal at Burlington Danes Academy.

“Just as I tear up a piece of paper that has something offensive on it and put it in the bin, I would not hesitate to take something off, unless I wanted to keep it for evidence to show the parents or to take the matter further," Coates said.

"First, they should not have a mobile phone. Secondly, they certainly should have nothing such as that on it."

However, politicians and union leaders have cautioned that giving such control to teachers could land them in hot water with the authorities, and such search powers that could be questioned by human rights activists.

“Is it properly a matter for school staff to examine and erase data from pupils’ mobile devices?” said Labour MP Kevin Brennan during the debate. “Is it sensible for teachers to have more powers than police officers would have under those circumstances, for example?”

Teachers could, say experts, also be unsure of what they were and were not allowed to access under different circumstances, leading to potential legal action from angry parents.

“There is the worry that that could get them in more trouble, because you have a grey area of whether that data was illegal, morally bad or dangerous to know," said Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

"It gets professionals into all sorts of areas where the decisions can be even murkier.”

Lack of enforcement

According to Bousted, there are already sufficient powers in place to take on cyber-bullying, but they are not properly used.

“The complaints that we have had are from members who have felt that their school leadership did not back them up when cyber-bullying was going on or pictures had been uploaded,” she said.

“That included one complaint from a young female teacher, who had a picture put on the web with a naked body substituted for her body, and that was flashed around the whole school," she said, adding the complaint was "not backed up by the leadership of the school".

Bousted called for schools to create specific policies for dealing with digital behavioural issues, and follow them through when teachers tried to enforce them.

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