ePolitix.com speaks to Philip Parkin, general secretary of Voice: the union for education professionals about the potential effects of wi-fi technology in schools on the health of children.
Question: You have strong views on wi-fi in schools, what are your concerns about the potential effects on children?
Philip Parkin: There are a number of them. There seems to be an increasing quantity of evidence being produced around the world which suggests that exposure to electromagnetic radiation can have long-term health impacts both on children and adults but particularly children. Exposing young children (from birth to 12 years of age) to electromagnetic radiation can produce changes in cell formation, genetic changes, and potential cancers.
It is a considerable concern that in schools we are installing wi-fi systems and we have no clear evidence that they are safe. My concern is that until they are declared to be safe and proven to be safe we should not be installing them in schools. The difficulty is that once installed in schools, they are switched on constantly whether the children are using them or not, they are exposed to that level of radiation.
Question: Do you think government has fully grasped the potential long-term consequences of wi-fi in schools?
Philip Parkin: No, the government has not. The government is avoiding the issue. I would not like to say that there are industrial or overriding interests involved in this but there is no question that the large communications organisations are quite powerful. We are not trying to turn back the tide as far as technology is concerned but we have to be sure that as well as doing a job for us, and there is no question that wi-fi does a wonderful job, we have to be absolutely sure that it is safe. This is something the government has not been prepared to grasp.
We have been talking about this for nearly three years. I am very pleased and interested to see that finally some of our colleagues in the other teaching associations have started to show some interest in this. At ATL's conference over Easter a motion was passed mandating their leadership to lobby the government on the potential dangers. I am very pleased to have other people on board with our campaign.
Question: What are the scientists saying and is government listening to them?
Philip Parkin: I attended a conference on electromagnetic radiation last September which brought together many of the leading scientists on this issue from around the world and there are contrasting views. There are scientists who say the dangers are clearly proven and there are real issues here that governments around the world have to grasp and there are other scientists who are saying there is no danger and no notice should be taken of the scaremongers.
Scientists do not say anything with one voice, but there is advice out there. For example, our own Health Protection Agency gives clear advice on children using mobile phones and that children should only use mobile phones in emergencies, and yet no one takes any notice of that.
We are seeing more authorities – abroad, national, regional, and local authorities – who are taking action on this. Last week I learned that a city in northern France is withdrawing wi-fi from all of its schools. There is clear concern, particularly around Europe and parts of the United States about this.
Question: How many wireless networks are being installed in schools? Are parents given any choice over this installation?
Philip Parkin: We do not know. There was a report two or three years ago which suggested that up to 50 per cent of schools had wireless networks at that time. That was more of an estimation rather than actual knowledge, though. Considerably more have most probably been installed since then but in some schools these are only partial networks, they are not necessarily covering the whole school. This is something that really needs further investigation that we need to learn more about.
In some cases some parents are being consulted but in most cases they are not. The advice that schools receive from the government agency that deals with this, Becta, is that until there has been a proven hazard then there is no hazard so they should go ahead and install them. In certain parts of the country parents are expressing some disquiet about this and are lobbying schools about the installation of wireless networks. There have been examples of schools which have taken them out and there is a school in the North East at the moment where parents are lobbying the school about the proposed installation of a wireless network. The same thing is happening in Northern Ireland.
I do not think parents are aware of the issues surrounding wi-fi. There was a Panorama programme about the issue a couple of years ago which raised awareness of it but the interest soon died. It is allied with concerns about the location of mobile phone masts. This is the same technology, with the phone masts operating all the time. People are concerned about that but do not necessarily relate the effects of mobile phone masts with that of wireless technology. Many parents are very happy to have wireless technology in their own homes.
Question: The Conservative Party recently announced its plans for primary academies. What are your thoughts on these?
Philip Parkin: The case for academies is not proven. Of the existing secondary school academies, some of them have performed well but a number of them have not performed very well at all, both in terms of their results and in terms of their management and leadership.
If you try and apply the academy model to primary schools it probably will not work.
Firstly, particularly in the current economic climate, there are difficulties of finding sponsors for secondary school academies. Where you would find sponsors for primary school academies is anyone's guess.
Secondly, primary schools do not have the infrastructure of management services and management ability that larger secondary schools have. They would not have the resources in order to buy that capacity. There are some services which maintained primary schools need to buy and need to access from their local authorities and are not in a position to organise themselves. They are in the business of education; they are not in the business of managing a large enterprise. The model does not fit comfortably with primary schools at all.
Question: Voice raised concerns in light of the government's announcement on fast-tracking into teaching and headship. What were these concerns and has government listened?
Philip Parkin: The government has not taken any notice at all. The concern is that six months is far too short a time to train anybody to be a teacher. You cannot do it in six months.
At the moment the minimum amount of time that somebody can be trained into teaching is a year. People doing postgraduate certificates in education, people who are entering teaching through the graduate training programme, or employment-based routes into teaching all take a year.
I have run these courses myself. I have run programmes for graduate trainees in primary schools, and even a year is a short time. To imagine that it can be done in six months is just not sensible. There is a programme for recruiting high-performing graduates, which is partly funded by the government, and it is called Teach First.
Although it fast-tracks those people by giving them an intensive six week course in the summer before putting them into schools in September, they still have to go through a training programme for a year before they can gain qualified teacher status.
You cannot do it in six months. You cannot acquire the skills you need; you cannot demonstrate the skills that you possess. You have not got time to learn those skills, to acquire those skills, to acquire the knowledge that you need in six months.
Secondly, it totally devalues the training and experience of all those teachers out there in schools. Teachers are not very happy with the thought that the government says that despite them having three or four years of training and many years of experience, they can put someone into schools and train them to be teachers in six months.
Are we going to train doctors or lawyers in six months? Of course not, it is nonsense. It is a headline-catching initiative that has no credence whatsoever with the profession.
Question: What do you make of the recent government proposal to turn teaching into a master's level profession?
Philip Parkin: It contrasts with the issue in the last question. One moment we are saying we can train teachers in six months and in the next we are saying that we need to up-skill teachers and make it into a master's level profession. As an objective it has got far more credence than the previous initiative but it just shows the confusion that the government is in about where it wants to go with education. It is a very real and positive action.
Bringing in a master's level profession has to be done by starting at the bottom and working up. To turn the whole current teaching force into master's level is going to require enormous resources which are not there, but you can start at the bottom with newly qualified teachers. At the moment the programme beginning in the North West next year is going to be optional; people can opt into the master's programme if they choose to.
In the medium-term, they should be looking at combining the master's with the current induction year for teachers and putting them together into one beast so that it becomes quite natural for someone to go through their initial teacher training, to gain their first post in school and then to carry on with their training to the master's level within their first two or three years of their time in the profession. It is just the same way that doctors and lawyers continue in training when they enter their professions. It should be a seamless transition into the profession and then on to the master's level.
Question: The prime minister has plans to give local authorities and parents more power over their schools. What are your thoughts on this?
Philip Parkin: He did not say much that is different from what was said a couple of years ago. The viewpoint of many teachers is that some of the difficulties we are experiencing in schools at the moment and the motivation, or lack of motivation, for children to learn is coming from parents themselves; they can be part of our problem.
It seems to be a retrograde step to try and give more power to parents. What we ought to be doing is focussing all our efforts on supporting and improving schools as they are, and supporting and improving the quality of parenting. It seems that this is just giving the general public another stick with which to beat the schools and teachers. This is not the way forward.