I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Minister is very welcome and I thank him for giving us the opportunity to present this Bill. I also thank Senators Victor Boyhan and Billy Lawless for co-sponsoring it.
While the Bill has been many months in the making, the issue of digital device usage in schools has been brought into closer focus in recent weeks. The Minister will be aware of the 11-week pilot scheme introduced by Mr. Terry O'Sullivan, principal of Blennerville national school in Counthy Kerry. The pilot scheme was introduced in conjunction with parents. Under it the use of smart phones and digital devices by sixth class students was banned outside the school. Students were already forbidden from using them in the school under school policy. Anecdotal evidence already indicates some significant results. Children are interacting more face to face, playing more and the problems that had arisen owing to social media usage no longer arise. The pilot scheme was so successful that the ban has been extended to the whole school. What is exciting about the project is that the effects were almost immediate and entirely positive. To put the Bill in context, we know from research conducted by the Educational Research Centre that by the age of 12 years nine out of ten pupils have smart phones. There is also evidence that the increase had coincided with class disruption on an unprecedented scale in classrooms. A recent teacher survey carried out by Studyclix of 1,000 secondary school teachers found that 60% favoured a ban on the use of mobile phones in schools. A further 43% said classroom discipline was worse than it was five years ago as a result of smart phone usage.
In terms of learning outcomes, the most recent study in an Irish context based on the 2014 data was carried out by the Educational Research Centre which looked at 8,000 primary pupils in 150 schools across the country. Among the findings was that pupils who did not have a smart phone had higher reading and mathematics scores compared to their classroom mates.
The impact of mobile phone usage on academic performance was further confirmed by the findings of the London School of Economics, my alma mater, in surveying schools in four English cities on their mobile phone policy and combining them with administrative data. The investigation concluded that student performance in high stakes examinations significantly increased post the ban. Moreover, a number of studies suggest the distraction caused by mobile phones not only impacts on academic performance but also on social well-being.
Central to the Bill is an acknowledgment of the massive contribution of digital technology to classroom learning. I know this from first-hand experience, having been an information and communications technology, ICT, teacher for many years in the further education sector. I introduced electronic learning into my curriculum in 1995. Therefore, I am totally and utterly convinced of the benefits of the use of ICT in the classroom.
The Bill is not about eliminating technology from the classroom. It seeks to provide a regulatory framework to preserve the educational quality of digital education where sanctioned by the school, while harnessing the attention of school children in a learning environment. Currently, the regulation of the usage of digital devices in both primary and post-primary schools is left to the decision making of the board of management.
In preparing for the Bill I obtained an overview of as many second level school policies as I could. It indicated a wide disparity on mobile phone usage policy in the classroom. For example, certain schools adopt an outright ban on mobile phone usage, while others require them to be turned off and handed up to the class teacher at the start of the school day. Others allow the possession of mobile phones in the school provided children keep them in their school bags and they are switched off on entering the school grounds. While this is entirely in keeping with the provisions of the Educational Welfare Act 2000 under which the board of management agrees the code of behaviour for a school, it allows for an inconsistency in policy across schools. What I am proposing in the Bill is a regulatory framework. I ask the Minister to ensure the introduction of a standardised code of behaviour for students' use of digital devices in all primary and post-primary schools which will contain the standards of behaviour proposed in sections 6 to 8, inclusive, of this Bill.
Section 5 of the Bill requires a board of management to implement a code of behaviour, in addition to any other protective standard the school deems necessary to reduce unauthorised access to digital devices. This is important as it allows an element of discretion on subsidiary considerations that may arise in a unique school setting, independent of the principal prohibiting mobile phone usage. Subsections (3) and (4) also require the school to outline the policy on the use of digital devices in order that both parents and students will be given notice of the code of behaviour operating in the school. Subsection (5) provides that the code of conduct will have to be compliant with section 23(2)(a) and (b) and (3) of the Educational Welfare Act 2000 which sets out the procedural requirement for codes of conduct introduced by the board of management.
Section 6 sets out the manner in which the code of behaviour for digital devices will operate in primary schools. The proposed law requires digital devices in the possession of a student to be labelled and handed in at the commencement and returned at the conclusion of each school day.
Section 7 further provides that students will be deemed to have breached the standards when they are identified as being in possession of a digital device during school hours. The deeming provision reduces the necessity for teachers to engage in an investigative exercise to determine whether a student has breached the provision which would result in less class time. The provisions are purposely simplistic so as to avoid confusion or lack of effectiveness.
Section 8 sets out the three strikes approach to breaches of the prohibition on mobile phone usage and is drawn from an evaluation of the policies of a number of secondary school currently in place. It is accepted that the section is likely to see more application in a post-primary school context. A first offence will attract the confiscation of the device for the duration of the school day. A second offence will attract its confiscation for the duration of the school week and require a parent to retrieve it from the school office. A third offence will involve the confiscation of the device for the duration of the school term and it being retrieved by a parent from the school office. In the situations outlined in subsections (1)(b) and (c) correspondence will issue from the school notifying the parents that the mobile phone has been confiscated and that it can be collected by them from the school office. The section reflects the accepted view that digital education is a necessary tool in a learning environment. It provides discretion for the board of management by which a student will not be prevented from accessing digital devices where such use serves an educational purpose, sanctioned by the teacher as defined in the code of behaviour, or where a parent has made representations accepted by the board that the digital device is necessary to ensure the health and safety or well-being of the child. The latter exception reflects the view that certain children may, for health reasons, require to use a mobile device or for other reasons related to their safety and well-being.
Section 10 has an express provision which requires schools to have in place within the code of behaviour for the use of digital devices in schools a prohibition on cyber bullying, harassment or intimidation and the code shall reflect the internal discipline process which is akin to the existing protocols in place on bullying and harassment within the school as they apply to a non-virtual setting. The section acknowledges that the code of conduct will have to be compliant with section 23(2)(a) and (b) and (3) of the Educational Welfare Act 2000 which sets out the procedural requirement for codes of conduct introduced by the board of management.
Section 11 relates to the provision of educational information.
The code of behaviour will require the board of management to provide educational information from experts to pupils, parents and staff. The code will endeavour to keep pupils and parents educated on the risks associated with digital devices, tablets or Internet-enabled devices such as cyberbullying, social media security and content management. This reflects the widely accepted view that in addition to regulation of phone usage are the equally beneficial and positive effects of educating parents and children as to the risks connected with inappropriate phone usage. The final section of the Bill envisages that the Minister for Education and Skills would prepare a report on the operation of the Act.
I wish to acknowledge the recently launched digital action plan for schools, which provides for a circular to be issued to schools on the usage of smartphones and tablet devices. I agree with the Minister that whole-of-school engagement, which includes parents, students and teachers, is the best way to formulate policy. I hope that when formulated, a standardised policy will be issued to every school. Clear and unambiguous procedures, such as those outlined in this Bill, will facilitate the use of digital devices in schools for learning while eliminating the possibility of less desirable and possibly harmful consequences.
I am deeply committed to the use of digital devices. I want children to access digital learning and for e-learning to be developed all the way through education and starting in primary school. I know that the Minister is deeply committed to delivering Ireland as the most modern place to educate one's child in Europe and I want to support him in every way that I can. I understand that he may have some difficulty with some of the sections of the Bill as it passes through the Oireachtas. I assure him that I am willing to work with him, his officials and with the trade unions that represent teachers to get the best possible statutory approach to the use of digital technology. I am sure we have all seen the negative side of digital technology. In my time as president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland I had to visit a school where two young children had committed suicide as a result of, or at least from what we understood to be, digital harassment. We constantly hear how the misuse of digital technology has negative effects on children. Indeed, anybody in the same profession as the Minister and I are used to seeing the effect of digital technology because some less regulated people hide behind silly names and attack us from cyberspace. I would be lying to him if I said that such remarks do not affect the mental health of an adult, let alone a child. I apologise to him for the short notice on the Bill. Again, I assure him that I want to work with him and his Department to ensure we get the safest environment in which children can use digital technology in this country. I support his aim to move Ireland forward as a digital economy and one that handles digital equipment and digital learning. I thank him for taking this Bill and hope that he is in a position to support same.