Evidence cited by Nick Gibb to support mobile phone bans in schools is from an eight-year-old study that some academics have criticised for showing “insignificant” impact on test scores.
The schools minister told MPs this week “there is evidence that those schools that do restrict the use of smartphones in schools…are seeing higher test scores and higher attainment as a consequence”.
Gibb told the education committee he wanted “more schools to be looking at that evidence and taking the decision to improve attainment by restricting the use of mobile phones”. Though “ultimately this is a matter for the profession and headteachers to decide,” he added.
Asked what evidence Gibb was referring to, the Department for Education pointed to a discussion paper published in 2015 by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.
The DfE claimed the study showed that after schools banned unrestricted access to mobile phones, “the test scores of students aged 16 improved on average by 6.4 per cent”.
What did the study actually find?
In 2013, academics Professor Louis-Philippe Beland and Dr Richard Murphy surveyed 91 schools in Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester regarding mobile phone policies and looked at administrative data.
The study, which was subsequently published in peer-reviewed journal Labour Economics, found that results indicated “an improvement in student performance of 6.41 per cent of a standard deviation in schools that have introduced a mobile phone ban”.
In a subsequent blog post, the report authors said this was equivalent to “increasing the school year by five days”.
The paper also concluded that banning mobile phones had more impact on low-achieving students – 14.23 per cent of a standard deviation – but had “no significant impact on high achievers”.
The study also acknowledged that its findings “do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured”.
Academics point to paucity of data
But a recent article by Australia-based academics Professor Marilyn Campbell and Dr Amanda Third pointed out that the actual effect size found was around 0.06. It concluded there was not “sufficient data” to back a mobile phone ban.
“An improvement in student performance of 6.41 per cent of a standard deviation is actually an effect size of 0.06 — though it has been reported as a six per cent improvement,” they wrote.
“Effect sizes of 0.24 are considered small, 0.50 is moderate and 0.75 is large. So, an effect size of 0.06 is insignificant.”
The blog post was written in response to comments made by Australian education minister Dan Tehan regarding a school phone ban by the South Australian government, in which he too cited the study.
In a more recent article, Beland said studies in Spain and Norway “also show compelling evidence on the benefit of banning mobile phones on student performance”. He added a “similar conclusion can be drawn from the literature on the effect of computers used at school”.
But he warned: “These findings do not discount the possibility mobile phones and other technology could be a useful structured teaching tool. However, ignoring or misunderstanding the evidence could be harmful to students and lead to long-term negative social consequences.”
Sandra McNally, head of the education programme at the Centre for Economic Performance, said Beland and Murphy’s paper “does support the claim that banning mobile phones can have a causal impact on student achievement in England”.
“The magnitude of effect on low-achieving students is sizeable,” she said. “As stated by the authors ‘the results suggest that low-achieving students are more likely to be distracted by the presence of mobile phones, while high achievers can focus in the classroom regardless of whether phones are present’.”