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Locking phones in Yondr pouches at John Wallis Academy in Ashford has improved school life, say teachers and pupils

When a secondary school became the first in Kent to lock away youngsters’ smartphones in pouches, some thought it would spark a “rebellion”.

But now even pupils at the John Wallis Academy in Ashford admit the bold new rules are having a positive impact, as Liane Castle reports...

“When I first heard about them I thought this is unfair,” says Year 7 pupil Jamie Brudenell.

“Everyone was saying ‘No, I’m not putting my phone away’, but now here we are – everyone is doing it.”

It’s been four weeks since the John Wallis Academy in Ashford became the first school in Kent to introduce a new initiative locking away phones in pouches.

Teachers say break times are now “noisier than ever” and “more pupils are talking to each other”.

And while some youngsters wish they could still have access to their mobiles, even they can see what a difference it is making in the classroom.

“I did see a lot of people on their phones before, in maths especially,” Jamie adds.

“It was making the class distracting so it was a bit overwhelming at first to see people just sitting and concentrating.

“People are better at listening to what’s going on. It’s just annoying we can’t use our phones all day.”

When KentOnline revealed the changes were being brought in, some parents expressed concerns. They said not being able to communicate with their children could be a “big inconvenience” when after-school activities are changed at late notice.

But now the initiative has been in place since the start of January, head teacher Damian McBeath says it has gone much better than expected and he has already seen a noticeable change in pupil behaviour.

Damian McBeath, head teacher of the John Wallis Academy
Damian McBeath, head teacher of the John Wallis Academy

“Students have been exceptionally engaged and compliant and we have found we are seeing very few phones in school now,” he told KentOnline when we visited the academy this week.

“We have seen a lot more engagement from students in lessons as the distraction and the buzz of the phones has stopped.

“We have seen far fewer incidents of disruptive behaviour across the academy in the past couple of weeks and one of the biggest surprises has been in the restaurant and lunch hall.

“There is much more noise but it is good noise. It’s the sound of students talking to each other instead of looking at phones.

“They are engaging in conversations – they are laughing and playing games.”

The previous school policy required pupils to have their phones switched off at the bottom of their bags, but this became increasingly hard to police.

Mr McBeath adds: “When we announced [the changes], some students were vocal in saying “I won’t do this” but on the first day there were only five students who refused to comply and by the second day, those same students did comply.

“We planned very carefully for the ‘what ifs’ but students have been fantastic and embraced this as the new way we do things.”

Every pupil in Years 7 to 11 has been given their own Yondr pouch to bring with them to school every day.

As they enter the gates, they are asked to unlock their pouches at one of 20 locking stations scattered around the playground, place their mobiles inside, and lock them away.

Pupils can keep their phones on them, once in the pouch, but are not be able to access them.

Yondr pouches which lock away phones were introduced at the John Wallis Academy on January 3
Yondr pouches which lock away phones were introduced at the John Wallis Academy on January 3

Youngsters can unlock them by tapping them again on the way out at the end of the day.

Sixth formers are allowed to access their phone but only while in the Sixth Form Centre, otherwise the same rules apply.

When the morning bell goes, each pupil then heads inside for their first tutor session of the day where pouches and uniforms are checked by members of staff at the door.

Mr McBeath says this has led to “calmer and quieter” corridors.

He explains: “Once they’ve used the locking stations, they then go to the morning welcome team where they are welcomed into the academy and checked for uniform and pouches.

“It also acts as a welfare check and being greeted with a smile in the morning is always nice.

“That routine has led to much quieter and calmer corridors before students make their way to class so that’s also something we have seen huge benefits from.”

Once pupils are inside, the Yondr locking stations are themselves locked up so they can’t be accessed at break times.

As well as locking stations around the school, members of the senior leadership team have portable unlocking devices which can be used in case of emergencies.

Pupils with diabetes have special Velcro pouches so they can be accessed when needed for medical reasons.

John Wallis Academy pupils Morgan Taylor, Charlie Carr and Jack Bell with their Yondr pouches
John Wallis Academy pupils Morgan Taylor, Charlie Carr and Jack Bell with their Yondr pouches

Teachers told KentOnline they have noticed pupils are more focused in lessons and they have seen a noticeable reduction in disruptive behaviour.

Data collected by the school shows there has been a 50% reduction in sanctions such as detentions and exclusions for January compared to previous months.

Year 7 pupil Morgan Taylor says while she has mixed feelings about the pouches, she has noticed a big difference in lessons and less bullying on the playground.

“I’m a bit sceptical of them but I think it is a good thing too,” she says.

“It can be distracting when you have to keep taking it out of your bag for it to be checked but I do agree with it at the same time.

“It has been better than I expected because people have actually been locking them up for once and they’re not using their phones in lessons.

“I just wish we could have our phones out at break times.

“It’s a good idea for people who are addicted to their phones. It does help with less bullying and more learning time – but I do prefer having my phone on me,”

Year 8 pupil Charlie Carr says he expected classmates to rebel – but so far things have gone smoothly.

“Last year I knew lots of people who got detentions for having their phones out and now they are locked away – I don’t know anyone who has been in trouble for it this time,” he says.

Twenty locking stations are scattered around the school
Twenty locking stations are scattered around the school
The stations are padlocked once pupils have used them in the morning
The stations are padlocked once pupils have used them in the morning

“I would prefer it if we could lock our pouches during tutor time so we could at least have time to look at our online timetable in the morning.

“You also have to put smartwatches in there too and I don’t really like that. I would prefer to be able to wear my smartwatch.

“When we first started using it I thought everyone would be mad and that there would be a small rebellion because everyone said they wouldn’t do it, but everyone does now – we are all used to it now.

“It is a problem when you forget to unlock it on the way home because then you can access it until the next day.”

Year 8 pupil Jack Bell says locking his phone away is something he has become used to.

“It doesn’t really bother me having to put my phone away,” he says.

“Lots of people in my maths class used to play on their phones and play games but it is a lot better than it used to be.

“Personally, I think it has done a lot better for the school because everyone has been listening a lot more.”

While other schools in the UK have already introduced the system, the secondary school in Millbank Road is the first in Kent to use it.

Mr McBeath says he has been “flooded with emails” from other schools across the county wanting to see how it works.

Assistant Vice Principal Lee Osborn
Assistant Vice Principal Lee Osborn

He adds: “We are not by any means saying we have mastered this. We know we are still in the implementation stage and this is still new for us, but that is a great opportunity for other schools to come and see what is happening.

“They can see what has worked and what we need to improve on.

“We knew it would be a way to improve safeguarding, to keep students safe and reduce distraction and on both of those fronts. We are achieving what we set out to do.”

While it is still early days, assistant vice principal and director of maths Lee Osborn says he is “surprised” at how quickly pupils have adapted.

He says: “In the space of a few weeks we just don’t see phones anywhere anymore.

“When you walk through the [school] restaurant their heads are up they are engaging with each other and they are talking to teachers.

“In classrooms there isn’t that constant distraction, so engagement everywhere from students has increased infinitely. It is incredible the impact it has had in such a short space of time.

“I did think there would be some kickback but it has surprised me massively just how cooperative students have been.

“At times pupils forget their pouches and I expected the number to increase as time goes on but in fact, it has gone completely the other way. The numbers are getting smaller and smaller.”

Mr Osborn says the system is needed now more than ever following Covid lockdowns.

“You can clearly say Covid had an impact because we had students who were isolated from friends for a long period of time and they became reliant on mobiles, understandably, for communication,” he explains.

The John Wallis Academy is the first school in Kent to use the Yondr system
The John Wallis Academy is the first school in Kent to use the Yondr system

“They were heavily dependent on using phones to stay in contact with people, but now we are back to normal, changing that mindset which is important.

“We want students to talk to each other and have fun sharing their experiences.

“This is one of the few examples where taking something away can make their experience better.

“In the restaurant, previously students would walk past you, but now I can’t get out for 15 or 20 minutes because they just want to talk more and that is one of the most positive things I can clearly see.”

Statistics on Yondr’s website state that 83% of all schools using the technology reported seeing an improvement in engagement in the classroom.

Around 74% saw better student behaviour while 65% saw a boost to academic performance.

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