Glen Sawle: The Australian Headteacher Pioneering a Smartphone-Free School

Wauchope Public School believes the use of ‘phone pouch’ technology is helping young people concentrate and get a much-needed break from social media.

03.07.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo of Yondr pouch, by Yondr
Photo of Yondr pouch, by Yondr

School life in 2019 — a time in which almost every single child has a smartphone with them at all times — looks nothing like a school environment most of us would be familiar with.

Young people can be impossible to engage in a classroom when there’s a device pinging notifications at them. Bullying has become even more personal, as messages can be sent directly to someone’s pocket or instantly broadcast around a school community; and children can take pictures of anything and everything that happens in a school environment, immortalising moments that previously would’ve faded happily into distant memory. There are even reports of people wandering around school grounds with their faces glued to a device instead of talking to each other.

In short, any of the potential benefits presented by smartphones are vastly outweighed by their role as an eternal distraction. The problem is that devices are so wrapped up in a young person’s online and offline identity that controlling the phone epidemic, and thereby wading into issues of privacy and autonomy, is fiendishly difficult.

Wauchope Public School, a state school in Northern Australia, has had its own unsuccessful battles to curb smartphone use. But now, under the leadership of principal Glen Sawle, it may have found a solution — drawing inspiration from music concerts to tackle the problem.

The school has brought in a school-wide ‘phone pouch’ system, using products created by the company Yondr. When walking up to school grounds, students are required to turn off their phone, unlock their individual pouches on one of the five stations on the fence, and lock their phone inside it for the day. Once school finishes, the students unlock their pouches in the same manner and have access to them again.

This same technology has been used to great effect by artists including Jack White and Haim, who were frustrated audience members spoiling the show for others by being more connected to their phone and recording devices than with the music and the people around them.

Speaking to ABC Australia, Sawle stressed that Wauchope was “just looking for a way to actually assist students shift their focus and attention away from their social media”.

“Many students are saying they are actually valuing the opportunity to be disengaged for a period of time from their technology and from their social media in particular,” he said.

“Rather than banning phones, this is about managing screen time and managing social media time and think these are good lessons for students in the future as adults as well.”

Both parents and students quoted in the story added their support for the scheme, seeing more people interacting with each other and allowing kids to “get back to learning”.

Data from a short trial reportedly showed suspensions were down by a third, and negative incidents were down by 10% — presumably as a result of not having to fight with students about their in-school mobile use.

ABC News adds support for the scheme is spreading, as two other schools are undergoing trials — the Heritage Christian School in Port Macquarie and Baylesford Secondary College in Victoria.

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