‘We don’t really need phones’: the French school that banned mobiles

How pupils at La Gautrais rediscovered games, dance and the art of conversation

It’s breaktime at a middle school in rural Brittany, and huddles of teenagers are chatting in the playground. Two 15-year-olds sit reading novels, while others kick footballs or play chase. One boy does some press-ups.

The hum of conversation and flurry of movement contrasts with most other French secondary schools, where playgrounds can be eerily silent as pupils stare at their mobile phones. In La Gautrais, no one looks at Instagram, Snapchat or YouTube. Here mobile phones have been banned. Few seem to miss them.

“I do have a phone, but I leave it at home and don’t really think about it much,” shrugged one 14-year-old girl in a denim jacket. “I don’t rush to check it after school. When I get home, first I’ll have a snack, I’ll chat to my mum, do some homework, then I might look at my phone. But only if I’m waiting for an important message.”

Two of her friends don’t have mobile phones at all. “We don’t really need phones because we’re always chatting to each other in person, we chat the whole time – too much probably – and we’re really good friends,” one said.

Coralie Lemaire (left), a Spanish teacher, and Laura Floch, who teaches English.
Coralie Lemaire (left), a Spanish teacher, and Laura Floch, who teaches English. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

La Gautrais middle school in the village of Plouasne banned the use of mobile phone on its grounds four years ago, long before the French president, Emmanuel Macron, made an election promise to outlaw children’s phones in schools in an attempt to “detox” teenagers increasingly addicted to screens.

From September, all nursery, primary and middle schools will ban mobile phone use. More than 90% of 12- to 17-year-olds are believed to own a mobile phone in France, and children were already banned from unauthorised use in class. But , as in the UK, it was left to headteachers to decide whether to limit phones in breaktime.

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La Gautrais’s 290 pupils between the ages of 12 and 16 come from surrounding villages in this farming area. Since the ban, staff have noticed more social interaction between children, more empathy and a readiness to learn at the start of lessons. There is less “switching-off anger” at having to move from breaktime gaming on smartphones to focusing in class.

“No phone use at school gives pupils a moment’s peace from social networks and some children tell us they appreciate that,” said the headteacher, Yves Koziel. “On social networks there’s an acceleration and extreme simplification of group relationships which can create conflict, even bullying. We’re freeing them from that – at least during the day. We’re cutting the umbilical cord and offering some respite from it.”

Koziel said he was pleased to see children returning to “ordinary things”, such as chatting, games and breaktime clubs and activities including dance and knitting. “I think children are more available for social interaction when they’re obliged to really speak to each other,” he said.

Yves Koziel, the headteacher
The school’s headteacher, Yves Koziel, says: ‘No phone use at school gives pupils a moment’s peace.’ Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

Policing the ban has not been difficult. Pupils switch off phones and leave them in schoolbags and there are fewer than 10 confiscations a year.

“At my previous schools, sometimes phones were in pencil cases and pupils were checking them or writing messages on phones on their laps,” Laura Floch, an English teacher, said. “Here, phones aren’t an issue.”

In March, Floch took a group of 15-year-old pupils to London for a five-day trip, visiting sights including the British Museum and the Museum of London. The teenagers were not allowed to use their phones during the day or during excursions, except when asking to take photographs of sights, but they could use them in evening free time.

She said: “They knew it was fair and they accepted it. But I could see other groups of children from France on similar trips at the same museums just sitting on benches and staring at their phones during the whole museum visit instead of taking part.”

Sitting with his friends at breaktime, Anatole Desriac, who recently got his first mobile phone at the age of 15, said he approved of the ban.

“When I’m with my friends I prefer a proper conversation,” he said. “If you’re all standing around with phones, you talk about what’s on the screen rather than really listening to each other.”

He and his friends use their phones to listen to French rap on the long bus journey. At home, playing Fortnite on PlayStation was just as enticing as a phone, but all their parents limited screen use.

“Knowing how to use phones in moderation is just part of life for us,” Christian-Steven Kitoko, 16, said.

Desriac’s mother, Nicole Lefeuvre, a librarian, said: “Children and parents tend to agree that it’s a good thing not using phones at school. Parents of teenagers find it hard enough to be constantly negotiating screen time at home.”

Her rules include no phones before the age of 15, no phones in bedrooms, no screens at all on Thursdays and school-holiday reading time for novels, comics or magazines.

In the playground, many under-14s said their biggest worry was breaking their phones, smashing them or dropping them in water so they were happy to leave them at home for safety’s sake.

Children play football and chat in the playground.
Children play football and chat in the playground. Photograph: François Lepage/The Guardian

One 16-year-old girl said she did not mind keeping her phone switched off on though she felt attached to it. “I have to know it’s there and I keep it in my jacket pocket, touching it regularly. I feel a bit lost without it.”

In Bourges in central France, Jean-Claude Chevalier, the headteacher at Littré middle school, which has 600 pupils, introduced a ban on phone use at breaktimes this year because of what the playground had become.

“Staff were surprised to see hundreds of children simultaneously glued to their phones during break – all sitting down staring at a screen and not talking,” he said. “It brought a loss of empathy, because children can use much stronger language on a screen than they would use face to face.”

None of the fears about banning phones had materialised. “We thought there might be more playground violence and rowdiness but that wasn’t the case. Pupils talk more, the playground is livelier,” Chevalier said.

“We thought we’d have to confiscate dozens of phones a day, in fact the number of confiscations has gone down. We thought the toilets would be monopolised by children sneaking a look at their phones, but that hasn’t happened at all.

“What we have seen is that pupils seem less addicted to phones.”

This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the world’s most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at theupside@theguardian.com

Contributor

Angelique Chrisafis in Plouasne

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