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May 2009

Union calls for schools wi-fi review

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which represents the interests of around 4000 teaching staff across Northern Ireland, is to lobby the education minister over its concerns about the potential health risks posed to children by wi-fi network

The move comes following the ATL’s recent AGM in Liverpool at which Northern Irish delegates successfully received the union’s support for their actions.

Wi-fi networks are an alternative method of connecting to the world wide web. Rather than plugging a computer directly into a phone socket, computers fitted with wireless adapters can log on to an in-range wi-fi network and gain wire-free access to the internet.

Last year, ni4kids reported on increasing concerns surrounding the Department of Education’s ongoing programme of wi-fi installation across the schools estate in Northern Ireland.

During a Stormont briefing at that time, concerned MLAs, school principals and parents heard Professor Olle Johansson from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm say that he believed that long-term exposure to wi-fi networks represented a very real risk to health.
More than 25,000 laptops were provided to schools here - 13,500 in the primary sector - during the 2007/08 academic year. Each school was provided with one wireless access point as part of the roll-out and some larger primary schools received two or three access points. One school, in Ballinderry, refused to have the access point installed.

But Colin McKinney, branch secretary for the ATL in Northern Ireland, is convinced that the Department should be doing more to shield youngsters from the potential dangers posed by the networks. He became interested after reading a paper on the subject produced by the ATL’s Northern Ireland director, Mark Langhammer.

“Mark produced his report after seeing that there were definite issues around the use of wi-fi”, Colin told ni4kids recently. “We aren’t scaremongering, but we do think that there is enough here to cause concern and we’d like to see it investigated. The last thing we want is for an asbestos-type situation to develop where, in 20 years’ time, our children are sterile.”

The ATL is one of the biggest teachers’ unions in the UK, representing around 4,000 members in Northern Ireland and 170,000 in total.
“We would like the minister to undertake to investigate the long-term threat that wi-fi might pose and to advocate a more precautionary approach”, added Colin. “We also think that it would be a good idea to inform parents if a school has wi-fi installed and to give them some input into the process.”

For its part, the Department of Education points out that it considers the health and safety of children and staff in its schools to be paramount. In a recent statement to ni4kids, it said that it was committed to its present strategy and to increasing the opportunities which pupils had to develop skills in information and communication technologies, and it added:

“Advice from the Health Protection Agency and the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation, is that there is no need to discourage the use of wireless networks. The department will keep this advice under regular review.”

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