The pupils who banned phones before bedtime

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Switching off: Weaverham Primary School year 6 pupils promote their no phones before bed message

After a research project looking at mobile phone use and its impact on sleep, year 6 pupils at Weaverham Primary Academy have pledged to ditch their phones an hour before bedtime. Emma Lee-Potter explains

Like most schools, Weaverham Primary Academy School has a strict mobile phone policy. Mobile phones are banned in school and if any of the 118 pupils bring them in by mistake they hand them into the school office at the start of the day.

“The children know that’s the rule and they don’t have a problem with it,” explained executive headteacher Fiona Whittaker. “They understand that we don’t allow mobile phones in school because they’re a distraction. The school has 30 iPads and the children enjoy using those but obviously we have control over which apps are on the iPads and which are not.”

Weaverham Primary serves a mixed catchment area near Northwich in Cheshire – 25 per cent of pupils have free school meals and 39 per cent are eligible for Pupil Premium funding.

In recent years there has been a plethora of research on the effect of mobile phones on children’s concentration and energy levels – and the fact that staring at screens at the end of the day can cause poor-quality sleep, which impacts on mental health.

A study released by the children’s mental health charity Place2Be for Children’s Mental Health Week in February suggested that children who get less than the recommended nine hours of sleep on a school night are more likely to struggle with worries and anxiety.

With that in mind, Joanne Ferrari, Weaverham Primary’s deputy head and year 6 teacher, decided to have a discussion about mobile phones with her class. Around 95 per cent of the 18-strong year 6 cohort have their own mobile phones so she knew it would be a topic of interest.

“The project started because there was a story in the news about young children getting addicted to their mobile phones and smart devices,” explained Ms Whittaker, who has been head since November 2018. She also heads Oak View Academy in nearby Winsford, where she led its transformation to one of the fastest improving schools in the country. Oak View is now rated “good” by Ofsted.

“The year 6 children had never thought about the fact that using your mobile phone can be addictive. They spent quite a bit of time doing research, looking at the facts, the different points of view of adults and children, the pros and cons of having a mobile phone and some of the myths out there.

“Then they wrote balanced arguments about mobile phones. That was the intended learning outcome. We were focused on getting a really good piece of writing from the children that reflected something relevant to them and that they had their own strong opinions on.”

The teachers at Weaverham Primary linked the issue of mobile phones to Children’s Mental Health Week, which this year focused on the simple things we can all do to improve our physical wellbeing – like eating, being active and sleeping.

As part of their mobile phone research, many of the year 6 pupils realised that they were getting less than the recommended nine hours of sleep a night. They presented their views and evidence to the rest of the class and held a discussion at the end of the session. Asked whether they should use their mobile phones before going to sleep the verdict was a resounding “no”.

“We looked at why the children weren’t getting nine hours of sleep and some of them said they had a disturbed sleep routine because they were using their phones before they went to bed,” said Ms Whittaker.

“About half of them reported that they listened to music or read on their mobile phones before bedtime and they felt it helped them to relax. But half recognised that playing games on their phone didn’t necessarily help their brains to switch off and help them get to sleep.

“We talked about it in assembly and afterwards some of the children came up to me quite happily and said: ‘I don’t go to bed till 11pm’.

“We decided to link all of this together and encourage them to develop better sleep routines. It’s outside our control but at least we can educate them about the research that says that if you ditch your mobile phone for an hour before bedtime you get off to sleep more quickly and you have a better night’s sleep. You then wake up feeling more relaxed and ready to learn.”

As a result of their research the year 6 class made a verbal pledge to ditch their mobile phones and smart devices an hour before bedtime. Ms Whittaker wrote about the initiative in her regular newsletter and Ms Ferrari discussed it with parents at the next parents’ evening.

“We didn’t want to put so much pressure on parents that they felt they had to do it with their children but we told them: ‘This is what the year 6s have pledged to do. This is the reason why and please can you support them with it?’

“The response was positive and after a few weeks 50 per cent of the parents said they had noticed that their children seemed to be getting to sleep more quickly and were more energetic in the morning. The staff noticed a difference in the energy levels of the children who had gone for this wholeheartedly too. Around 45 per cent of the parents said their children weren’t that keen to give up their phones before bedtime and that it hadn’t made any difference.”

Nevertheless, the school is keen to carry on with the initiative, particularly ahead of the year 6 SATs this month.

Weaverham Primary is part of the North West Academies Trust and Ms Whittaker is going to share the project with the other schools in the trust. As a first step, the Weaverham year 6s will visit Oak View Academy during the summer term to talk about their findings with the year 6 pupils there. The initiative has been so successful that the Weaverham staff plan to repeat it next year.

“The important thing for the children is that they do the research themselves,” said Ms Whittaker. “I don’t think other year 6s will be persuaded just because our year 6s come in and say ‘oh yes, this makes a difference’.

“Other children need to investigate and do the research themselves to be convinced that there is a good base of medical evidence saying that this is good for children’s mental health. As adults we know that if you’re really tired and exhausted and haven’t had a good night’s sleep then you’re not going to be in the best emotional place to deal with things.”

The project was part of the English curriculum but the teachers also linked it to discussions about the children’s emotional health and wellbeing in PSHE.

“We didn’t set out with the aim of doing a big project on mobile phones but the series of lessons grew into something much bigger,” Ms Whittaker added.

“The children’s open-mindedness was exemplary and the conversations they had were very mature for their age. It helped them to recognise that while everyone has a point of view there may be other people who have a different point of view for very good reasons – and that’s something you have to apply through life. These are skills that the children will be able to use in other aspects of the curriculum and as they go through life. I’m really proud of them.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance journalist.

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