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The Issues

Issues concerning BECTA: British Educational Communications and Technology Agency.

BECTA was the Blair/Brown Government’s partner for the development of Information and Communication Technology in Education (ICT).  Schools, anxious to develop and implement their ICT strategy during these years, looked to BECTA for advice.

BECTA, in turn, looked to the Health Protection Agency and the World Health Organisation for advice. There was thus a lot of “advice” flying around and being quoted by Local Education Authorities, which schools relied upon, both with regard to wired ICT networks and to Wi-Fi, at a time when little was known about the health effects of wireless technologies.There was a race to get the technology installed, and, understandably, its educational benefits realised.

It now appears that in many schools, various considerations took precedence over little understood health risks, or were weighed against them on what may now come to be seen as a somewhat dubious “benefit versus risk” assessment. For example, one authority told us that the reason why they favoured Wi-Fi, and were installing wireless routers in every classroom throughout the county, was because it obviated the need to drill through walls or ceilings which contained asbestos. We are not disputing that many decisions to use Wi-Fi were made on what seemed fully rational grounds. The correlation to the asbestos risk, however, will be developed in these pages, further on.

These pages will attempt to show you what was known about wireless technologies, and what was either ignored, not properly understood, not referred to, or dismissed. This is a process that now needs careful analysis, and SSITA is embarking on that analysis.

However, BECTA stated their advice quite clearly in their document:
Technical specification. Institutional infrastructure. Version D. September 2007
which, on Page 14, Section 1.1 states that:

“Wired networks have become the industry standard because of their superior data rates, low cost and high degree of stability, with wired networks ubiquitous in education as the fundamental technology underlying local area networks (LANS). A wired network must therefore be used as the main network in an institution”.

BECTA also recommends that ‘while secure wireless networks can complement an institution’s wired network, they should not replace it’.

There will have been some schools that have understood and adhered to that advice, indeed many schools originally did adhere to it, only to be swayed later by other factors into deviating from it.  For example, BECTA had several initiatives which encouraged wireless technologies in schools and which made huge allowances for it (despite the above guidance to adhere to wired networks in the main). These could be seen as very attractive to schools, offering great educational potential as well as “kudos” with parents and possibly Ofsted. These included:

  • Next Generation Learning
  • ICT Mark Accreditation
  • ICT Excellence awards for schools

In addition to this, the Government set up the laudable Home Access Programme (more about this later) and BECTA itself supported the Hand Held Learning Conferences and Technology Awards and research projects.  Many schools, anxious to improve their students’ educational experience, soon saw the desirability of embarking on these exciting technologies – and there would have been absolutely no problem with that whatsoever – if it had not been for one thing:

Advances in better understanding of the biological effects began to give concern that these technologies might have adverse effects on human health and well-being, but these (and various studies) were not given sufficent attention, and in any case, were not brought to bear quickly and forcefully enough in the field of education and ICT development. This research clearly indicated that in fact there might be biological effects from wireless technology, which in themselves marred the educational experience and undermined its perceived benefits. It will perhaps be seen one day that it was indeed unfortunate that this research was not given more credence and scrutiny at a time when this technology was so rapidly being rolled out into schools, and before the BECTA advice on page 14 of:
Technical specification. Institutional infrastructure. Version D. September 2007 (above)
receded as something less attractive to maintain.

What is the situation today at the time of writing- June 13 2011?

On 27th May 2011, The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on Member States to reduce exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, asking for particular attention to be given to children and young people,( who are most at risk), and called for restrictions on the use of wireless technologies (Wi-Fi) in schools with a clearly stated recommendation for fully-wired networks to be used in schools: (Please see section 8.3.2. below:
(“for children in general, and particularly in schools and classrooms, give preference to wired Internet connections”.)

“8.1.3. Put in place information and awareness-raising campaigns on the risks of potentially harmful long-term biological effects on the environment and on human health, especially targeting children, teenagers and young people of reproductive age;
8.3. concerning the protection of children
8.3.1. develop within different ministries (education, environment and health) targeted information campaigns aimed at teachers, parents and children to alert them to the specific risks of early, ill-considered and prolonged use of mobiles and other devices emitting microwaves;
8.3.2. for children in general, and particularly in schools and classrooms, give preference to wired Internet connections, and strictly regulate the use of mobile phones by schoolchildren on school premises;”

The Council called for better liaison between education, health and environmental ministries, which up until now has been sadly, and alarmingly, lacking. To see the draft in full and for further details please see The Council of Europe.

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