Young and Old – Traditionalists trash tech in teaching

Toby Young can be a prick. He also is smart, challenging, and worth paying attention to. 

But he is wrong about banning mobiles in school – and his views are hurting more than the debate about BYOD.

I have read his articles since the 90s, as I was a big fan of the writing of Julie Burchill and could not avoid bumping into his views and vitriol. Anyone who has followed him over the years knows that he has carved out a special niche in our journalism, for tearing into the lazy left.  I have always loved the iconoclasts and the disruptive voices, and have come to seek his articles out – though I rarely agree with him. However low his actual hit rate is (in terms of being ‘fair’ or ‘right’)  people like Toby Young are (to my mind) essential and necessarily painful. We need people to prick our comfortable consensus. This was especially true in the broadly left wing discourse of the 90s and early 00’s.

However, Toby Young is no longer the thorn in the side of the establishment, ripping into flabby thinking. He is increasingly in the role of an attack dog for Tory party; off the leash – spreading ill-informed fear and beating a path for the most reactionary part of the establishment.

I rarely interact with Toby on Twitter, except to retweet  his tweets encouraging other ‘Free Schools’  – and sharing information about this policy. I am leading a free school proposal group in Oxford – ONSchool – with the specialism of Innovation, and a focus in excellence in use of technology to support learning.

Which brings me to the purpose of this post. 

Yesterday, Toby Young posted a comment to twitter saying that banning mobile phones in school was ‘an excellent’ idea. Unsurprisingly, I disagreed.

I tried to explain why and show why his comment was ‘out of date’.

This prompted a further tweet from Toby asking if I would allow DSs into schools, which led me to point to the wealth of great practice on Games Based Learning, starting with Derek Robertson and Dawn Hallybone.

The debate blossomed into an increasingly ridiculous and entrenched argument about the value of technology in schools, largely with the hectoring and closed minded Andrew Old, the details of which are in the public stream.

Thanks to my much smarter and more informed PLN, I had support from many edtech teachers supporting my view and tackling the claims of Andrew Old. Andrew made so many mistakes in his responses, including relying on research that was over 10 years old to back up his claim that technology was a distraction from learning.

Toby made a lot of a false dichotomy  between technology that is for ‘learning’ and devices that are ‘distractions’ .  This is what worries me. When Toby Young’s scattergun contrariness hits a target, it does not matter if he aimed at it or not. The damage is done. Even Michael Gove, in his speech at BETT 2012, recognised the disruptive and engaging potential of digital tools to support learning – and how hard it is to legislate for these boundaries.


As I have said in recent posts, I fear that ICT (the term) has damaged more than the cause of edtech, and is allowing the reactionary voices to pull us back to a model of education that never worked, even in its heyday – except for the the most privileged.

Sloppy thinking about the relationship between Innovation, Technology and Educational Excellence has meant that clever and hopeful people like Toby Young – who cared enough about education to set up a school – can support a views of edtech that risks damaging kids outcomes.

Toby Young failed to listen to the informed and expert voices (including @DrDennis @DawnRobertson @bellaale @penny_ten @learningspy @GrahamBM and many others)  to inform his thinking.

These are not woolly liberals, or entrenched and lazy public sector unionistas. These are the  voices from the leading edge of best practice. The teachers who have demonstrated that edtech is NOT a token of progressive teaching  – but a vital aspect of school life – just as technology is in ‘real life’.

To ban technology in schools (whether ‘intended for learning’ or not) is to harm the learning that could take place in schools. To think that it is possible to ban it (effectively) is ridiculous – and indicative of why the traditional view of education is so inappropriate to the reality of our modern lives.

It is not that I disagree with Toby that bothers me – as this is quite common.

It is that Toby has become flabby and so comfortable that his points are not being sharpened by the whetstone of informed debate.

He is becoming lazy and falling on to tracks of party line and nostalgia – because he is supported by the weight of the establishment – and is not  fighting against it.

Toby’s work on Free Schools is to be commended – in that he has fought for a space for parents to make decisions about the schools that their kids can learn in. But, his ill-informed comments on GBL and BYOD, and in favour of ‘traditionalism’  feeds policies from the coalition, must be challenged (more competently) by those who must interpret them into the complex lives of our kids . Those of us who believe and have evidence that edtech (in the broadest sense) belongs in schools need to demonstrate a more coherent challenge. If we want to allow DSs or smart phones in school – we should be free to do so.

These decisions belong to professionals who work with children, who are empowered to be make judgements that lead to the best possible outcomes for the young people they work with. Toby’s comments feed a media frenzy of moral panic that ill befits a man with a legacy of intellectual independence and clarity.

I invite Toby Young to take Dawn up on her offer of a visit to her school, to come to LWF in January, to take part in a Teachmeet – and rediscover his edge.

I, for one, would like to see Toby Young back on form, and bring his phone into a few classrooms where he can tweet, photograph and investigate with the teachers and kids making 3rd Millenium education a reality now.

He needs help to learn why so many of us are so passionate about the place of technology as a transformative force for educational excellence. I want Toby Young to see what we see. So let’s help him.



This entry was posted in Innovation and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Young and Old – Traditionalists trash tech in teaching

  1. Hear hear – it is disappointing to read the misinformed thoughts of someone that I have respected for a long time in this field. You are right – he should attend a teachmeet, he should visit iLongfield, or Cedars, or one of the hundreds of schools all over the world that are engaging students with the use of modern and cutting edge successful, collaborative tools. He should go to LWF and he should also try speaking with young people or examining the overwhelming evidence that supports and proves that GBL and use of Edtech in education is not only the way forward, but part of our culture. We have a moral duty to ensure our students have the necessary skills, knowledge and attributes to be responsible digital citizens in our global digital world.

    I warmly welcome him to attend TeachMeet Clevedon (and your good self too) on October 11th and see what cutting edge CPD really is. If he asks nicely, I might even let him speak!

  2. Dr.P says:

    Such devices in schools certainly can have positive uses. The main problems arise when they are used by pupils for purposes outside of our wishes or control. For example, a pupil covertly sending messages when s/he ought to be working or, more seriously, the question of responsibility (and liability) if pupils access age inappropriate material during school hours. Do the positives outweigh these problems? Some would say yes, others would say no.

    • Eylan says:

      Thanks for the comment Dr P. Of course there can be problems – but these are not the fault of the device – but of the classroom management and wider ethos of the school. This is NOT the teacher’s fault – it is a school wide approach that is needed.

      Responsibility (liability) are clearly tougher issues for a school to discuss with governors/parents…and good communication is needed before ‘allowing’ devices in.
      There are differences between primary / secondary approaches.. but the driver for this must be teachers and learners agreeing that the positives DO outweight the problems and to work together to make them work.

  3. Well said. Toby represents a section of our profession who dismiss new technology with their resistance to change. Learning is enhanced using a multitude of ‘tools’ and the skilled educator identifies and implements appropriately. If you can support negativity with reasoned, relevant debate then it is accepted. However, to dismiss our progression with ‘lazy’ commentary is a distraction.
    This post will find its way onto the staff room wall. Thank you.

  4. We resolve the problem by getting kids to put their phones on the right top corner of their desks. They can’t use them without being seen but they ARE encouraged to use them WHEN appropriate in the lesson ie to quickly research something, get an answer which means I have 28 wee research assistants all googling at the same time like a living hive brain… 😎 Once they get past the initial ‘let’s surf porn in class’ they use their phones far more for class and extra research etc than they did before.

    We need to teach them safe use rather than ban altogether. I keep seeing people using the analogy of learning to swim. If they don’t then they’re struggling in a pool of information with no shallow end….

    • Eylan says:

      Excellent example of great practice – thanks David. Hope Toby (or the teaching staff at his school) take the time to read some of these comments.

      Are you Primary or Secondary BTW?

  5. “To ban technology in schools (whether ‘intended for learning’ or not) is to harm the learning that could take place in schools.”

    But what about when that technology itself is responsible for harming the learning? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for embracing technology – but how do we manage this effectively?

    When I chipped in my tuppence to the debate on Twitter at the weekend, I stated that “Phones are ok in a middle class utopian classroom – but out here in the real world, they cause trouble.”

    To elaborate, in challenging urban schools I have witnessed first-hand students using mobile technology to abuse, bully and undermine staff and fellow students. Examples include “slagging off” teachers on Twitter during lessons, taking ‘upskirt’ photographs of female members of staff and posting them on the internet for all to see, and students using facebook to arrange a mutiny during which 150+ students walked out in the middle of their lessons to sit on the school driveway for no other reason than to cause disruption.

    There’s more than just classroom management issues here. It’s hard for teachers to deal with misuse of mobile technology when that technology is being used to access external social media over which the school has no control. Not to mention the obvious child protection issues that are raised – I’ve witnessed students being bullied via text, or accessing inappopriate content, on numerous occasions.

    In addition, there are also issues regarding equal access for students in deprived circumstances. To expect students in schools in deprived social areas to use mobile phones would be completely unfair to the 5-6 students in each class do not own one – it’s devisive and unfairly excludes poorer students from the learning acitvity.

    In my current school mobile phones are banned, and while it is sad that we cannot currently find a way to safely embrace and utilise the technology, it has created a calmer, more focused learning environment. And that doesn’t mean we don’t use technology – video cameras, PCs, laptops, microphones, virtual learning environments, iPads and iPods are all used in a successful, controlled way.

    • Eylan says:

      Thanks for this extremely thoughtful comment. I agree with much of it – and have also heard of and seen similar horrific use of phones by children to bully other kids and teachers.

      Where we disagree is that I think the problem is not the phone – but the lack of a clear policy well-implemented. This can happen in any school and is no more likely in one social class than another.

      The technology cannot be responsible for harming the learning. When a child picks up a chair and throws it across the room – no one calls for them to be banned. (sorry for this strained example)

      I am not sure middle class kids are any more likely to be in a utopian classroom. I know lots of schools in the real world that are making good use of phones in class.

      As you say, it is sad that your school cannot find a way to safely embrace phones – but I am glad that you are successfully using other tech : )

      My support of phones in school is not so much in denial of the problems you state. But, have all problems with phones and cyberbullying stopped in your school cos you banned them?

      Surely better to stop fighting the inevitable – model appropriate use of tech – even in class! – and help children to use the phones for good – rather than leave them to explore the obvious negative uses that the most disruptive kids will strive to get away with.

  6. Bryan Plumb says:


    A very thought-provoking and informative post as always. It is always interesting to hear people’s opinions on matters such as mobile phones in the classroom and the comments have provided an additional, alternative perspective without being so blunt or close-minded as to say ‘ban them, ban them all!’

    Clearly they can be a distraction (but as you say, so can an empty biro and wads of paper!), but I love the simple concept of having mobile phones on the desk at all times where they can be seen, although we have to consider whether this does start to alienate children without phones / with older generation phones…Clearly it is working for David, so fair play!

    Soon to open Hackney University Technical College told me how mobile phones will play a key part in their teaching and learning strategy, but to combat misuse, an acceptable use policy will be put in place:

    “At present, every school is required to create a home-school agreement and we will be incorporating a mobile phone acceptable use policy into ours, as well as our e-safety agreement…”

    With regards to alienating pupils without mobile phones, I wonder if the fact that we distinguish such devices as separate technologies to everything else is a big part of the issue?

    In English, we don’t ask pupils to take out their fountain pens (anymore!), instead they can use biros, fountain pens, black ink, blue ink etc. So, why don’t we suggest that pupils use their “mobile phones, classroom laptops, iPads, or whatever device they feel is suitable for the piece of work.” Surely, if we are not placing an emphasis on phones being a separate tool but instead just one weapon in our armoury, pupils will do the same? As you know, I am no teacher but I do wonder if this approach would make any difference?

    If you are interested, you can read the ‘Mobile Phones in Schools, Educate or Eradicate’ article I wrote at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *