Do your homework if ‘back to school’ means a first phone for your child

What’s the right handset for someone going to high school, what controls should be put in place – and will teachers even allow it? Here’s the lowdown

Buying a mobile phone for someone starting secondary school is a minefield – and not just financially. Some parents will argue that no child of 11 needs a phone; others that it is essential. And with the vast choice of handsets and deals on offer – from pay as you go to contracts and sim-only – the choice is bewildering, with the cost of getting it wrong surprisingly high.

Below we list what we think are the best deals – with a word of warning before you get your wallet out. If you are planning to send your son or daughter to school with one of the latest smartphones, think again. Of the thousands of mobiles stolen every month, as many as two-thirds are taken from children aged 13-16. Buy your child the latest iPhone and the chances are they will no longer have it at the end of the first week.

The cheapest basic phone

Ideally you should get a cheap, old handset that isn’t going to appeal to thieves. Parents often use this moment as an opportunity to upgrade their own phone and pass on their bashed up handset to their child. If you need to buy one, however, the Nokia 130 will be a faithful and tough friend – and crucially costs just £3.74 from Carphone Warehouse, when bought with a £10 EE top-up. Once you have used up the credit, put in an Asda PAYG sim, which we reckon is the best value non-contract service. Calls are 8p per minute and texts are 4p. If you want your child to have a basic phone just to keep in touch, this is the way to go. The same handset can be bought unlocked at Tesco for £19.

The best entry-level deal

The standout option here is the Moto E (2nd generation) from Tesco Mobile. Parents will need to sign a 24-month contract at £7.50 a month, for which they get the handset for free, 250 minutes of calls, 5,000 texts and 500MB of data a month (enough to spend 25 hours on Facebook). The phone itself will do most things teens require, and has “gorilla glass” so the screen shouldn’t be too easy to smash.

Also, from a parent’s point of view, Tesco Mobile lets you cap the child’s bill. They will not be able to make calls or access mobile data once he or she reaches a set limit, but they can still receive calls. Tesco Mobile also lets users bar premium rate calls/text services, and has perhaps the best customer service in the sector, making it hard to beat for parents.

Generally, kids that make several calls a day or, more likely, use significant quantities of mobile data, will be better off on a monthly plan

Smartphone options

If you are looking for something a bit more sophisticated, the Huawei P8 Lite is a good iPhone alternative. It is available for free from Carphone Warehouse if you sign an £11.50 per month contract which includes 300 minutes and 500MB of data. This is on Carphone’s own iD network (which is provided by Three), and also allows parents to cap the bill.

If your older son or daughter insists on an Apple, the iPhone 5s is available for £15.50 a month (and no upfront cost) with similar call and data terms as the Huawei, again at Carphone Warehouse. Tesco offers the same iPhone for £14.50 a month with more minutes per month but a £60 upfront payment.

Best sim-only deal

If you already have a phone, or prefer to buy one outright, a sim-only deal is the way to go. ID offers 500 minutes, 1GB of data and 5,000 texts for a bargain £5 a month, which once again can be capped. If you want a lot more data, its 4MB a month deal costs £10 and is more than enough for most teens.

Tesco Mobile’s sim-only plans start at £7.50 a month. One option to consider is whether your home phone provider is offering a free sim as part of your package. BT, TalkTalk and Virgin all do, but check the terms closely as you generally can’t cap the bill and are liable for all charges to the account.

School policies

Be aware of the school’s policy on phones before you buy, as there are no national rules on the matter. Many ban them entirely, while others allow them to be used at lunch time only – and you may want to impose your own ban once you research their impact.

While some fee-paying schools have promoted the use of mobiles in classrooms, research published by the Centre for Economic Performance found that banning them from school grounds adds up to the equivalent of an extra week’s schooling over a pupil’s academic year. GCSE results at the Ebbsfleet Academy in Kent improved dramatically after phones were banned in 2013.

Taking control

Many parents are unaware they can ask mobile providers to block access to porn and other sites deemed unsuitable for under-18s. Simply ask for parental controls to be turned on. Ofcom has details on what parents should know.

With phone theft a major problem, keep a record of the handset’s unique IMEI number, which will identify it. Just type *#06# into the phone’s dialler and it will display a 15-digit code. You can use this to register at, so if the phone is stolen and then found or recovered by the police, they can check it against the database and potentially return it. You should of course report any theft to the network immediately.

Don’t bother buying mobile insurance – policies rarely pay out if the handset was stolen at school or college.

Shopping around

Arenike Adebajo and her sister Ife.
Arenike Adebajo (left) with her sister Ife. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

My 14-year-old sister Ife goes back to school this week, and as her older sibling it’s been my job to find her the perfect phone – and one that won’t break the bank, writes Arenike Adebajo. Her starting point was that the only one worth having was an iPhone. I’m sure this is what every 14-year-old says, but we had to be more realistic. We began our research online.

As above, the cheapest we found was the Nokia 130, but Ife gave this an emphatic no – she can’t get her head round a phone without a Qwerty keyboard, a camera or internet access. Besides, she said, it’s the same one grandma has. Fair enough.

Next up was the Moto E, but Ife thinks it’s too chunky – although she would use it if she had to … maybe. In truth, it didn’t go down too well. Nor did the Microsoft Lumia 550.

What did was the stylish Sony Xperia XA. It has the look and feel of a higher cost model and she loves the rose-gold colour. There’s a front camera so she can Snapchat, and at £15 a month from Carphone Warehouse with 1GB of data and unlimited minutes and texts she’s sold. It’s almost as pretty as the iPhone 6, she says approvingly.

But in the end, my mum decides to give Ife her old iPhone 4 with a monthly sim, while she upgrades to a nice new iPhone 6. Everyone’s happy … ish.

• This article was amended on 4 September 2016. It previously said that EE provided the network for Carphone Warehouse’s iD network. This has been corrected.


Arenike Adebajo and Miles Brignall

The GuardianTramp

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