Call To Action: Going Phone Free — how to enact whole school behaviour change

We Are In Beta
Oct 25 · 22 min read

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Leann Swaine is the Headteacher at East Barnet School. As the Associate Headteacher at the time, Leann was set to make some big changes. Not quite the leader of the school, but eager to be.

When she became headteacher, she knew she had to make her mark on the school quickly. From time to time she’d hear her teachers complain about kids being distracted by phones during class. She would tell them to put them away and they comply, but as soon as they are out of sight, the kids would have them back out again.

Teachers felt undermined, but it was only a low level of distraction. A battle not yet picked. Leann noted her teachers’ frustrations, but it all came to a head one day in the school corridor.

Want to know what happens next?

Listen to the whole story in the first episode of Series 2 of the We Are In Beta Podcast or read the transcript below.

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Whether you believe phones should be banned on schools or not, Leann’s story is compelling case study of how to lead change.

Below I’ve included a slightly edit transcript of the episode.

If you’d like to access links to all of the research, slides, models, resources and books mentioned in this episode, sign up to the free We Are In Beta Newsletter.

Leann Swaine, Headteacher, East Barnet School

Leann Swaine: A friend and colleague came to visit and we were leaving my office and as we walked out of the office I could see a student on a mobile phone. It was the end of the school day and, current practice, I was not in the position of headteacher at that time and current practice was that phones weren’t allowed. At that point, it was after the school bell and I knew that the normal thing to do within the school culture at the time was to say, “Put your phone away.” Before I saw the child, my friend said, “Well, what’s your policy on phones?” And I was just really embarrassed because I knew what I was going to do is not what I would have liked to have done because in my mind what we should do was different. And so I went over to the child, I said, “Put the phone away” and the children here are wonderful and so popped her phone away, but I knew that as soon as I went around the corner, her phone would be back out again. And so I was really embarrassed about that and I knew that it was something I wanted to change.

Niall Alcock: This is We Are In Beta. We, the education community, are in beta, always learning. East Barnet school is a mixed secondary academy with 1,400 students. It’s a new school building, sits just on top of a hill. Leann took us on a tour and the view from the library is astonishing. A great football pitch with a backdrop of the whole borough, it seems. I tell you this to make it clear, the school is big. Now this may seem like a story about phones and discipline, and on one level it is. But on another level, it’s a story about how to make a large sweeping change while having the support of the entire organisation. Leann was the Associate Headteacher when she thought of the initiative to make the school phone free. It wasn’t even her school yet, but before this, Leann had been traveling around to different schools in preparation of becoming a headteacher.

Leann Swaine: Yeah, so I was on the Ambition School Leadership, which at the time was called Future Leaders Program, and as part of that we were lucky enough to travel to Washington, to see schools out in America to see best practice, and also traveling around in our peer group, identifying good practice in other schools. So just going to see lots of great schools. And having been in lots of schools, you get to see what great practice looks like, and all of those, I took something different from each of them.

Niall Alcock: I’m really interested by your trip to Washington. What did you bring back from that?

Leann Swaine: Systems and processes actually. The charter school system and actually seeing that almost to what some people would say is an extreme, the meticulousness and the level of detail of planning, and actually until you asked that question, I hadn’t really thought about that, but that is something that I am very keen to do. Anytime you implement something you consider all aspects of the change so that you try not to miss any avenues and that level of planning detail that goes in beforehand is probably something I picked up from there because they had such extreme systems and processes.

Niall Alcock: To me, the whole initiative to ban phones entirely from a school sounded like a lot. Especially with a self-imposed deadline of just one week.

Jay Singleton: Were you intimidated in any sense about the initiative to take phones away?

Leann Swaine: No. Just because I knew we could do it. I just knew we could do it. I’ve got great staff here, wonderful students. And I try to make sure the why comes out, and you’ve raised that here with me. But the why is so important. It’s not because it’s just another rule, it’s because I genuinely think your mental health is at risk by being addicted to these mobile phones. I think that you will learn better without them being here. And I think the staff and students will get on better because they’re arguing about mobile phones, because there’s clarity of expectation and clarity of sanction. And so I think when you’ve got that much power behind something, if you just then make it easy for people with really clear steps about what you do, then we will be successful. So yeah, no, I didn’t have any apprehension, I was just really keen to do it, and particularly because I was embarrassed of my friend as well.

Niall Alcock: But what she doesn’t mention there is that this isn’t the first time she’d seen it. Throughout her career, she’s worked in a number of schools with a range of phone policies.

Leann Swaine: In the last school that I worked in, I can’t remember us bringing it in, but the expectation was just that phones were never seen. Children won’t argue about their phones just because the expectation was so high and so clear.

Jay Singleton: So this the first time you’ve been in a school that has made the transformation in front of your eyes?

Leann Swaine: Yeah, the first time I’ve brought in or we’ve made the transformation. In previous schools I’ve worked in, they have had similar rules and children were looking at their phones in other schools, there were rules that they must be away during lesson time. But yeah, this is the first school where we’ve actively made the decision to remove phones. And I think it’s important to say that it wasn’t just about removing it totally, because we’re a school that is heavily involved in robotics and engineering and actually the children use some of the apps in those environments. However, the differentiation is clear. The teacher must give the permission for the children to use their phones so that they’re not using it for inappropriate reasons like messaging or being on social media.

Niall Alcock: With the support of her leaving headteacher, who’d been serving there for 20 years, Leann began to prepare people for the change. Teachers wanted phones to be put away and by some accounts, so did students.

Jay Singleton: Is this true? Is this true that some students were like, “Yeah, I’d be happy without phones?”

Student 1: Yeah. A lot of students were against it, but then quite a few were also for it because I think some kids like having their phones at school so that when they go home or come into school, if anything happened, they could call someone. And then there’s the other students that they want their phone at school so they can use it in school. So I think that was the divide.

Niall Alcock: These are a few students from East Barnet school, one of whom was here when the initiative started and saw it from the beginning.

Niall Alcock: What did you think when the school first said it was going to go phone free?

Student 1: I thought it wouldn’t work because initially they said that if you brought a phone into school, you had to hand it in at the start of the day and then get it out at the end of the day, and I knew that a lot of people weren’t doing that. So when they said that they were going to bring about the ‘see it, hear it, take it’ I thought, “Nah, that’s not going to work.”

Student 2: So when I came to this school and the rule didn’t come up when I first started, so you could use your phones here, I’d listen to music in lessons to calm down or just to use your calculator on your phone or something. And then when there was an assembly with Miss Swaine and she brought out the ‘see it, hear it, take it’ I was like, “No, I don’t want that to happen.”

Niall Alcock: See it, hear it, take it. This is the slogan that accompanied the initiative.

Leann Swaine: Keeping it very simple. The rule is see it, hear it, take it, which I must acknowledge is something I stole from another school, it’s not mine.

Niall Alcock: Who are they?

Leann Swaine: Globe Academy in Southeast London.

Niall Alcock: Can we go back a step? How was the initiative communicated to you as students?

Student 1: I heard it through a set of rules that were newly being brought into place because it was all in a big collage and multicolored and then there was this one.

Niall Alcock: Where was that placed?

Student 1: So we did it PHSE and form time, but it was also mentioned in assemblies.

Niall Alcock: Okay. And then did Miss Swaine tell you that?

Student 1: I think she might have. But if not, I think it was my head of year. So it was someone in a senior position, not just a random teacher.

Leann Swaine: And with the students, I also thought about the students that might find this difficult, and so I went to see them personally to have a conversation or ask the heads of year to go and have a conversation with the students so that you don’t get your phone confiscated, but also just so that they were bought in as well to understand. So I would explain about that. When I’d have those conversations I would start with talking about mental health and you know how phones, people get addicted to them, I really don’t want that to happen to students in this school, I want us to focus so I am going to bring in this new rule and some of us might find it hard and particularly I have in mind some year 11 students that I remember telling because the year 11s were always going to find this the hardest.

Niall Alcock: This is all stuff Leann did before starting the phone-free initiative. There were a lot of preparations. She made sure that parents knew. She sent letters and emails. One of the parents told us that she was entirely supportive and didn’t really realise why something like this hadn’t happened before. Another thing she did in preparation was create a system to collect phones at reception.

Leann Swaine: We got the reception area prepared by ordering more boxes. I know it seems very silly, but if you take some child’s phone and then lose it or it is confiscated and stolen for example, then that puts us in a really difficult position and the minute it’s taken and then lost and a parent rightly complains or a student’s upset, then it’s not going to be successful because people will be fearful to take those phones again. So we had to make it really clear. The system was already there, but I knew we needed more. So that was the first thing.

Niall Alcock: There are a lot of details like that, but none more important than how she communicates with staff.

Leann Swaine: The reason you need to talk to staff is that you can’t expect staff to read emails, get the gist of something in a briefing conversation, quick briefing. This is something that is really important and if we’re going to be successful, we all have to do it together. So I think sometimes we as school leaders say “Well let’s do this. Okay, here you go, go off and do it.” But if you haven’t given time for people to consider it, to ask questions, to identify what part they play, then you’re more likely to be unsuccessful. So the time with staff was so, so important.

Jay Singleton: I remember you described a scene to me, and I remember this, for some reason it stands out, but you couldn’t email your staff because you know how people ignore emails. You brought them all in and then this class and you’re doing this pitch to them. Can you describe that scene for me?

Leann Swaine: Yeah, so I think I would like to consider myself… in fact no, I’m not going to say that. I was going to say a good saleswoman, but no, I’m not. So when I brought the staff together, obviously I’m incredibly enthusiastic and excited, but I could see in the audience, in the sea of faces smiling back at me, some raised eyebrows and a couple of looks to one another. And so I actually did change in the moment what I was saying to say things like, “I know you might think that this is going to be difficult, but these are the things that we’ve done to make it easier for you. I know that you might not be looking forward to challenging a student, but the first time that you do it, you will feel that confidence and you’ve just got to do it, and you will have all of the support.”

Leann Swaine: And in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I’m definitely going to prove this to you so that you know we can do it.” And also, it was really important to me that the staff felt supported in this, but I just knew we could do it. But yeah, there definitely were some raised eyebrows. Those people, I went to speak to them. I went to find them out and really go over the message again just to try and get them on board with it.

Jay Singleton: Being able to be like, “I see you. I see you’re not fully on board.” That was a benefit of having this be in person.

Leann Swaine: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s a really good point. So I think again, the reason why face to face meetings or sharing when you’re selling a vision like this, or not a vision, but a change, you’ve got to have people in front of you because when you see their reaction, you can then temper your response in the moment or change what you’re saying to kind of crank it up a little bit to win them over a little bit more. But ultimately, you can then go and have the conversations after so you can work out who’s with you and who’s not. And definitely I could see after that the people that were really up for it and and willing to really try.

Niall Alcock: With her most skeptical staff, Leann had to do something called finding the feeling. This meant she needed everyone to understand why they were being asked to confiscate phones. So she did some research.

Leann Swaine: In order to really get people bought in, you have to tap into their why and why it’s important. And so what I did with the staff was I went through some of the research and I kept it very simple. It was just something that was very current at the time. So it was an article in a national newspaper which said mobile phones; schools are better without them. And at the time the Ofsted chief inspector had backed a ban on phones in schools. So I shared that information with the staff.

Niall Alcock: With her research, Leann was trying to make it clear that the purpose of the initiative was about mental health and learning. Giving her team a why was a major pillar in the preparation. Making sure that people understood why things were happening was just as important as letting them know what’s going to happen, and bracing them for how it will feel when it does.

Leann Swaine: I think it’s really important that we recognise our own journeys, and certainly for me, I’ve probably forgotten what it feels like when you first take a mobile phone or you first challenge a pupil. I don’t get that sense of anxiety anymore, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I did because I’ve practiced it enough. Although if I’m completely honest, there’s probably one or two children that I have to really take a deep breath and think “How am I going to approach this?” Not about mobile phones but about something else. So I think it’s really important to remind staff of what it feels like or to acknowledge actually that you will feel a certain way. Because it feels like such a small thing to say, “I’m going to confiscate your mobile phone. What’s the rule?” “See it, hear it, take it.” “Let me take it then.” It feels very small and minor. But actually that will lead to increased heart rate. You’ll feel a bit stressed. You’re anxious about the whole situation and reminding staff that you will feel like that and it’s okay to feel like that and the more you practice it, that will dissipate and it will become easier.

Leann Swaine: And then I also just gave them the confidence or tried to give them the confidence that things would be easy for them. I think some staff were concerned that if they asked a child to hand over their phone that the children would refuse, and so I made it very clear that there would be full support for them. That would mean that if a child did refuse to hand the phone in that they would be sanctioned. We’d also get the phone and I think that’s really important because a member of staff doesn’t want to feel undermined. If they ask the child to do something and they don’t do it, where do they go next? So I made that clear.

Niall Alcock: So the students were informed, the poster on the wall, the teachers are on board, and tomorrow is the first day of East Barnet as a phone-free school. After the break.

If you’d like to access links to all of the research, slides, models, resources and books mentioned in this episode, sign up to the free We Are In Beta Newsletter.

Niall Alcock: So you’ve done your research, you’ve got all the preparations in place, you’ve spoken to parents, staff, teachers, posters around the building, people are on board.

Jay Singleton: All the groundwork is in place.

Niall Alcock: It’s done. What happened on day one?

Leann Swaine: That first day when I came into school I was thinking, “Okay, must make sure that if I see a phone I’ve got to take it straight away.” And I would usually anyway, but I would like to say that I am quite alert to these things that seem quite small probably. But I’m thinking, “Yeah, first one I see I’ve got to take it and I’ve got to support a member of staff. If I see a member of staff who is about to take a phone, I’ll go and support them.” So yeah, absolutely. That was all running through my mind when I first came into school. There was definitely a clear sense that there were less phones around. By telling all the students about this change, the majority of them just put their phones away, switched them off, and didn’t look at them for the whole day. But there were the odd ones that slipped into that old routine of just checking their phone for the time or having a quick look at messages around the building.

Leann Swaine: So day one, I’m really excited and I don’t see enough staff taking phones. So I saw a student with a phone out and I could see the other staff were looking the other way.

Jay Singleton: Where was this?

Leann Swaine: It was actually in the entrance, the exit for the school. So I knew I had to go over and take the phone, so the other staff could see me and I just made it very clear. So I said to the student, “What’s the rule? What’s the new rule?” Smiling and it was very unconfrontational, that I went over smiling saying, “Oh, what’s the rule?” And the student said, “see it, hear it take it.” And I said, “So what do you need to do?” And they said, “I need to give you my phone miss.” And so they very simply handed over and it was very, very clear.

Leann Swaine: And interestingly, I think on this particular example I saw one of the members of staff who’d seen me do that the very next day repeat the same word for word, pretty much the same language that I had used to then successfully take the phone herself. I think what’s interesting though, is that on the first day the numbers were slightly lower than I had anticipated, but what I saw is because myself and other leaders were supporting colleagues that the next day it soared.

Jay Singleton: So tell me, start from the beginning of day two.

Leann Swaine: Day two there was a different sense of purpose. I could see that the staff, and it wasn’t like they were out to get the kids you know, this is going to come across that we were all, you know we adore children here, but the staff were definitely more keen and I remember having a conversation with a member of staff who said, “I’m going to get a phone today.” And there was almost a sense of competition and I don’t want this to come across again in the wrong way, it wasn’t us against them, it was just “let’s just do this together, let’s work together and I’m going to put myself out there and take and take a phone.” And so that was the peak of it. Day two was 35. Staff were on board, students realised, “Okay, they’re really doing this now.”

Jay Singleton: Can you tell me about why the phone thing might have worked?

Student 1: No-one really wanted to get that phone confiscated anymore.

Student 3: People had started, whenever they get caught with their phone, it doesn’t happen much, but when it happens they just accept it and they don’t argue anymore because they know it’s not going to get them anywhere. So I think it’s working in that aspect.

Niall Alcock: What was it like before?

Student 3: More people were against it. So if a teacher was like “Give me your phone” they would shout and all this, start making a big scene. But they would take advantage of it. But now they just hand it over. They don’t bother [arguing].

Niall Alcock: No questions. How’d you know it was working?

Student 1: Because a lot less of my friends were getting their phones out. So like people were trying to get their phones out under the table or at lunch time or in the playground, and then when this came in they were just like, “Yeah I better not because it would get taken away.”

Niall Alcock: What were the main benefits of of this for you as a student?

Student 1: So I think it kind of keeps people focused on what’s going on in school. I think when you have your phone, you want to know what’s going on and you want to be involved in things.

Student 2: When it carried on, like this see it, hear it, take it, for like quite a bit [of time]. It helped me in a way, like it made me feel more relaxed, more calmed down because I didn’t have a screen always with me all the time.

Niall Alcock: Miss Swain was talking about using it in robotics.

Student 2: Usually in science because in my science lessons I use my phone if I don’t have my calculator, he lets me use my calculator on my phone.

Student 1: Yeah, same, product design. I had to take pictures of my products, what I was making, the processes I was using, and I had to do that all throughout the year to put in my PowerPoint to send off to the exam board. It was my NEA so I had to use it for that.

Jay Singleton: Has this in any way translated into your life outside of school? Are you eager the second you get out of class to be on a phone again? Tell me about that.

Student 1: Because of this initiative, I knew that once I’d done whatever I needed to do for the coursework, I had to put it away. But then it meant that when I got home, I was interested to see if I’d missed anything, but at the same time I could get on with my homework without my phone instantly because I hadn’t had it going on behind the scenes throughout the day.

Student 3: It got you more used to not having it so that if I was home and I was doing homework or something, usually I’d have it next to me. But if I left it upstairs, I’d be like, “Okay, don’t care.”

Student 2: I still check the time every now and again. You always got to check the time. If there’s not a clock in the lesson, you want to know what time is to see how long you’ve got left.

Niall Alcock: You mean so you know how much more you’ve got left to learn more, you mean?!

Student 2: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Niall Alcock: In a school with 1,400 students, by day three East Barnet school was confiscating less than 10 phones a day. She set out to get it done in a week and it was effectively done in three days. Three days.

Charlotte: My name is Charlotte. I’m a PE teacher at East Barnet school. This is my, and I think I’ve lost count, but I think I’ve just done 18 years. So I’ve seen this school. I’ve seen the school.

Niall Alcock: Two questions; how did you do it? And why were you so keen to do it?

Charlotte: I think the directive was very clear and that was what was really important about this. It came top down and before Leann came here, there was a lot of middle leaders making decisions and it wasn’t quite clear, so the structure wasn’t very clear about how you would tackle it.

Charlotte: I like autonomy in some respects in terms of some parts of my teaching, but I like to know what am I expected to do. So I would see somebody and I wouldn’t ask to take a phone. I would say, “Put your phone away, it shouldn’t be out in school.” But the student always looked at you as if you were sort of been a bit of a nuisance doing that. There wasn’t really anything that we knew what to do. So when the directive came down from Leann that these are the rules, you see it, you hear it and you take it, it’s very clear for the student, it’s very clear for us.

Charlotte: My own child who’s at secondary school, her school don’t have this policy and she’s phoned me up in a class before and I’ve been completely, I don’t know if this will go on record, I think completely flabbergasted and I brought it up with the head teacher at this particular school and said “You know, surely with all the research there is out there with mobile phones and distracting and limited learning potential, you’ve got to be getting rid of these phones.” And she said that she started doing that about five, six years ago or whenever it was she was head teacher and she said the confrontation was just not worth the staff’s health, my health and it just didn’t work.

Jay Singleton: What about this initiative has made you feel like… what is transferable about it?

Charlotte: The most important thing to me was how you set it up. You need to firstly start with being passionate about your rationale behind it. What is it going to lead to? What will eventually, if it gets done right, what will be the consequence of that? And for us it was about getting the most potential learning that you can from a child, it was about their wellbeing. There was a big sort of discussion about that. There’s evidence backing it and there’s lots of evidence backing it if you read, there’s many articles. So the passion needs to come first, then the clear instructions. What is it you have to do from a member of staff? And then the students need to also know, so both staff and students need to be explicitly clear on what it that’s going to happen? What are you going to see that is different?

Charlotte: So you have to set it up in such a way that everybody is crystal clear. The parents as well need to know. So therefore when you’re phoning home and you’re saying your child’s had their phone confiscated, they are under no disillusion of as to why this happened. And then you almost have a launch day. It’s going to start on Friday. It’s going to start on Monday. So then everybody’s prepared and then you just need to follow that through. I think the most important thing was the setting up. We were clear, the students were clear, the parents were clear, everyone was clear.

Jay Singleton: So as I mentioned earlier, this is about change, this is about enacting a change through a school. What have your reflections been about how this can apply to the other changes you can enact in school?

Leann Swaine: So I was new to the school and the school is fabulous and there’s not much that I want to change. But I think as even your podcast is named [We Are In Beta], I think it is important that we’re always reflective and we’re always trying to make things better for the experience for the students and for the staff. So I knew that there was some things I was going to do. This for me was almost a quick win. I’m sure you hear that a lot in leadership research that you should have these quick wins to build people’s trust in you and that you can achieve something. And I suppose, it wasn’t an intentional thing, but I often go back to this as something that we all did collectively together and look what we did with the mobile phones. If we can do that with the mobile phones, then we can do this with anything because-

Niall Alcock: Useful case study?

Leann Swaine: Yeah, very useful case study, and I always go back to it, so much so that I think I now get the eyebrows raised like “Not the phones again.” “Do you remember what we did with the phones?”

Niall Alcock: Yeah we do!

“Yes, of course we do because you keep telling us about this Leann.” It is very useful to use as a change model, as something they’ve experienced rather than some theory or research. They know that I read a lot and I tell the staff about things that I’m reading or listening to, but this one they experienced themselves.

Niall Alcock: There’ one more thing Leann mentioned that we didn’t include, the Switch Model

Leann Swaine: The switch model by Heath and Heath is just a change model, which just talks about how you change things because change is hard.

If you’d like to access links to all of the research, slides, models, resources and books mentioned in this episode, sign up to the free We Are In Beta Newsletter.

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