7th March 2017
A little over one year into Headship at Bradford Grammar School and my forays into the world of social media as a fledgling tweeter and blogger continue. I don’t think I’m particularly good at either, certainly no expert, but I’m keen to learn and improve. Through blogging I’ve tried to provide an insight into my role, aspects of BGS, the modern independent sector and education more generally. I’m reasonably comfortable exploring potentially sensitive issues, for example in my previous blog about how schools regard and treat feedback, hopefully as an opportunity and not a nuisance. Unlike just about every other blogging Head however I haven’t yet reflected on issues concerning the increased use of technology, for good and ill, by young people. But such issues have been on my mind recently and I’d now like to scratch that surface.
First a little context. I use technology quite a bit when teaching Geography. It is tool for varying the character and pace of lessons, for increased differentiation and tailoring sessions to the needs of the class. In so doing pupils acquire new skills and confidence. I cannot however claim to be an educational trailblazer. I’m a fan of using computers for straightforward word processing, drawing graphs, photo and map annotation and so forth. Providing more complex tasks, for example, layering data on Google Earth images, digital conferencing between schools and producing animations adds interest and makes lessons more fun for pupils (and for me). If I really think about it, I perceive that technology of different kinds has value in education when it enables a task to be completed more efficiently, accomplished collaboratively and / or extended into new territory that could not have been achieved in any other way. So, as an educator I actively encourage pupils to engage with technology, including mobile devices.
I also appreciate that there is another side to the current relationship between young people and technology, deepening problems which institutions like BGS, working with our pupils, their families and other agencies are tackling as well as anyone can.
So why haven’t I commented on this issue until now? When it comes to the increasing use of technology and social media by the nation’s youth there are polarised views, I’ve alluded to them above. Balancing these tensions and divining a sensible and reasonable approach to the use of technology in any school is not easy. At BGS we constantly review our policies and practices and have recently turned our attention to IT specifically. Working closely with consultants we have now laid the ground for further enhancement of our online safeguarding practice, teaching methods, administrative functions and the infrastructure required to realise these developments.
But the degree to which technology at BGS merits bespoke and discrete attention is a moot point. Should technology be treated as a separate category within schools? Do people in my position need to craft new suites of policies, introduce additional leadership structures, create bespoke solutions to problems when they arise particular to the digital world? Or should we take a broader view and regulate our developing relationship with technology as an integral part of whole school and departmental operations, no need for a disproportionate amount of separate attention? The question is a fundamental one and has a bearing on how technology is used in teaching – via separate lessons and / or embedded in the context of the wider curriculum – and pastoral care where schools have to decide if separate e-safety polices and approaches are required. Do we devolve responsibility for technology and its use to one IT guru, or share it more widely across a spread of colleagues?
When it comes to the problems associated with mobile device dependency and social media pressures I fear that we are defining too tight a fence around this issue. The potentially harmful way in which young people are using technology, and more specifically mobile technology, for accessing social media is as much a symptom of the issues they might be facing as it is a cause of their problems. This is a wide horizon however and one beyond the scope of my bite-size blog, so I’ll change tack and contemplate a few specifics.
On 6 October 2016 HMC posted the document ‘Research: Teenage use of mobile devices during the night’ . This investigation, conducted jointly with Digital awareness UK (DAUK), of 2,750 pupils aged 11-18 found that almost half of those surveyed accessed their mobile device after going to bed. Of those, a 23% checked their device more than 10 times a night, 25% spent more than an hour on the device, 94% visited social media sites and 38% said they’d be curious to know what was happening if they hadn’t checked their mobile before going to sleep. Overall, 68% of the sample claimed that night time use of mobile devices was affecting their school work. This report went on to offer some excellent advice for addressing any potential concerns surrounding device use and dependency. Regrettably, headlines like ‘I’ll go to sleep on two and a half hours’ sleep’: in The Guardian on Saturday 4 March persist.
Schools of all kinds are doing important work to address the issues and foster healthier attitudes and behaviour in their pupils. A comprehensive appraisal of this valuable work must be reserved for another occasion but a quick skim through the HMC twitter feed and comments by fellow Heads Kieran McLaughlin and Helen Pike indicates that boarding schools are taking sensible steps forward and I very much like the message of Stephen Lehec that ‘Using a smartphone is like crossing the road … our children need our help in teaching them how to do it safely and wisely’. This is our approach at BGS, setting clear boundaries and informing good habits.
Education, not placing a blanket ban on the use of mobile devices, at school or at home, except at bedtime (!), is to my mind the key. At BGS we actively encourage the use of technology, including through our virtual learning environment (VLE) as part of the educational journey and that includes taking active and informed steps to blend technology into the weekly routine. As part of our evolving strategy in this area we have identified our vison for IT to be as follows:
“Bradford Grammar School aspires to develop well rounded young people who confidently and safely navigate the digital world and promotes innovative and effective pedagogy through the use of technology. The school will provide outstanding infrastructure, support and training to all members of our community for the achievement of our vision”
Using a range of hard and software, not one device or package, for a variety of purposes and doing so responsibly and safely is our goal. Additionally, the use of technology is not confined to one or two discrete slots in the timetable or restricted to a singular policy or practice but rather spread across academic subjects and schemes of work, part of a wider approach and established in routine, not ‘bolted on’ and regarded as a discrete, separate entity. I enjoy talking to Year 7 pupils about their coding at lunchtime, (although I sometimes encourage them to get a bit more fresh air), we’ve recently provided the Sixth Form with sessions on how to use social media for professional purposes and regularly attend to online safety and well-being issues in assemblies and through the Personal Development programme. But as ever, there is more that could be done.
Last Monday a headline of the front page of The Times read: ‘Tech giants must tackle cyberbullies or face curbs’. The article suggested that “Ministers are to summon Facebook, Twitter, Apple and others to Whitehall and will demand that they develop new technological solutions”. Sexting was highlighted as a particular concern as “fears about sexting have superseded parental worries over drinking and drug taking. A study for the NSPCC and Children’s Commissioner found that 13 percent of those aged between 11 and 16 had taken topless ‘selfies’”. I’m not sure that the fighting talk of ‘summons’ to Westminster and Ministers ‘demanding solutions’ is entirely helpful, but schools and parents do need help. Clearly, the debate about the benefits and costs of our children’s use of technology in school and at home is set to continue.