Review by Frances Akinde

SEND advisor and neurodiversity champion

2 Mar 2024, 5:00


The Conversation – with Frances Akinde

It’s been another interesting week in education, but I missed most of it due to a blocker I put on my phone. This is an app that limits my time on social media. As a result, I have been much more focused and productive, but I have to admit I have had a touch of FOMO now and then.

Delving back in to crowdsource my contribution to this week’s column, I was drawn to a number of discussions that share a central concern about freedom of expression.

Not artsing about

I strongly believe that art education deeply enriches students’ learning experience and prepares them for life after school by encouraging self-expression, a strong sense of self-identity, confidence, and creativity.

So it was worrying to hear of an announcement that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would be conducting a full-scale review into Arts Council England (ACE), which invests public money into arts and culture for the benefit of everyone in Britain. The review will determine whether it should continue to operate in its current form.

Bizarrely, in response, instead of talking about the value of the arts and their role in supporting this, ACE instead issued a statement advising organisations that “overtly political or activist” statements made by individuals linked to them could pose reputational risks and lead to broken funding agreements.

Artists and cultural figures have criticised this move, calling it akin to censorship. One of the most vocal critics of the review was Bob and Roberta Smith, a pseudonym for the artist Patrick Brill, who posted a series of messages on X challenging the government’s motives and defending the role of ACE in supporting artistic freedom and diversity. He also created a painting titled Hands off our arts council, which he displayed outside the ACE headquarters in London.

Amid ongoing concerns about impartiality in the classroom, this is a debate that raises important questions about the arts in education. I have some pretty strong views of my own about that, so I better unblock my phone!  

Dialling it in

As an adult, I have the choice and freedom to do that, but over the past week the issue of phones in schools has reared its head again after the government finally published its mobile phones in schools guidance. There is a certain irony in watching the proponents of an outright ban take to their phones during school hours to defend their position, but for me the key takeaway – and also deeply ironic in its own way – is the complete distraction this represents from the sector’s many very real concerns. 

The response that best encapsulated this position for me came from the former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield:

As the world of social media did what it does and argued at length on whether to ban or not to ban, I couldn’t help but think that this is not the question. Individual schools and teachers can see mobile phones as a hindrance or a help and enact policies accordingly. But the fact remains that the technology can be addictive and a complete waste of time (hence my blocker).

Banning its use in schools doesn’t make the problem go away. It displaces it, and could in fact make it worse. As educators, we surely have a role to play in teaching young people and families about the benefits and drawbacks of their use, how to access them in age-appropriate ways, and indeed how to make use of restrictive tools like my blocker to limit exposure.

Not that we have a ban or anything like it. Just toothless guidance that provides cover for some heads while shunning the real problem. Worse, its very toothlessness just feeds division and makes consensus less likely.

Our children deserve better. And I imagine we don’t have to go far on the internet to find that they’re letting us know through their art. Which they’re making politically. On their phones.

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