BECTA closed on the 31st March 2011.  Some of the key areas of BECTA’s work will be continued by the Department for Education (DfE) and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

This page will remain, as BECTA played an important role in promoting the use of wireless technologies throughout schools in the UK.

Old information:

BECTA (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) is the Government’s partner for the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education.  Schools look to BECTA for advice.  However, BECTA refer to the statements made by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) for advice on the safety of Wi-Fi in schools.  BECTA (2007) recommend that ‘while secure wireless networks can complement an institution’s wired network, they should not replace it’.

BECTA have several initiatives which encourage wireless technologies in schools and ensured their provision for pupils’ use in the home:

  • Next Generation Learning
  • ICT Mark Accreditation
  • ICT Excellence awards for schools
  • Home Access programme

BECTA also support:

  • Hand Held Learning Conferences and Technology Awards
  • and fund research projects

For further information on the above initiatives and examples, click on BECTA’s Initiatives.

BECTA and the UK Government are strongly pushing the use of mobile, wireless technologies in schools.  In pursuit of excellence in education, a desire to be using cutting-edge technologies and the prestige of winning ICT awards and grants, schools are turning wireless.  Wireless schools are held up as shining examples to others; they are ‘champions of change’.  Educational institutions embracing mobile technologies are often the ones being recognised by BECTA and Ofsted for their ICT provision.  There is no doubt that the direction schools are being directed in is a mobile, wireless one (BECTA’s Initiatives).    

At the same time, there is strong and increasing evidence for damaging effects of these technologies on human, animal and environmental health.  Exciting advances are being made in technology, but science is also making leaps forward in our understanding of the impact that electromagnetic fields are having on human/animal and plant life.  At the moment technological advances and biomedical research are moving along in parallel, with very little communication between the two.  There is a real need for the advances in bioelectromagnetic research to be guiding the development of new digital technologies so that they are compatible with human health and that of our environment.  Many schools are becoming eco-schools, often unaware that their wireless transmitters are contributing to the damage that man-made microwave electromagnetic fields are having on bird, insect, amphibian, mammalian and plant health (e.g. WildlifeBirds/Bees).

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Technologies used in schools need to be compatible with human health.

Whilst the decision of whether a school uses wireless technologies lies with the school, the incentives of excellence awards/rewards and recognition offered to those who adopt a wireless approach, are forcing many institutions to introduce more and more wireless devices.  This direction is very exciting if the technology is safe.  But, despite gaps in our knowledge and remaining controversies, we now know enough about the non-thermal effects of microwaves on the body to be able to say that it is highly likely that some people will develop abnormalities, illness or disease as a result of exposure to microwaves below current guidelines.  Many effects are at exposures relevant to the use of wireless computers/networks.

The Russian equivalent of the Health Protection Agency (RNCNIRP) has said that it expects young users of mobile communication systems to experience diminished learning and cognitive abilities, increased epileptic readiness, brain tumours by the age of 25-30 and dementia and other degenerative disorders of the nervous system by ages 50-60.  Schools could ignore this and wait to find out if it will really happen.  Alternatively, armed with scientific knowledge, we can decide to take a precautionary approach for now and put more effort into better understanding what the risks are and whether there are safe levels that could be used for future technologies.  After all, ‘every child matters’.

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An Alternative way forward

Pupil’s education, health and wellbeing should be at the centre of any initiatives to introduce new technologies into schools.  The technologies need to be adding value and need to be safe.  It is not a school’s role to support the wireless communications industry.  Rather, industry is offering technologies which may be useful in education.  The argument is often made that pupils like wireless technologies.  But pupils also want to be safe.  The RNCNIRP has said ‘The children using mobile communication are not able to realize that they subject their brain to the EMF (electromagnetic field) radiation and their health – to the risk’ (2008).  Schools, Governing bodies, local authorities and the Government therefore need to act to keep pupils safe.

ICT has a lot to offer the education system and needs to be adopted and used effectively.  Schools could be using ICT throughout the school/curriculum, whilst also having a no-wireless ICT policy in place to protect pupils and staff.  We feel that there is potentially a huge market for non-wireless digital technologies for use in education (laptops without Wi-Fi, hand-held non-wireless devices etc.).  This approach would not stop technological advances, but would adjust the direction we are going in to take into account identified health and safety issues.

Many schools have moved way beyond considering whether they should use Wi-Fi and have invested a lot of money in a wide range of wireless technologies.  But if the scientific research suggests that these may be having a detrimental effect on pupil and staff health, then changes need to be made.  Many countries now recommend that children and young people do not use mobile phones (including the UK Stewart Report and Department of Health, International Concerns) and yet more and more schools are providing them for pupils to use (BECTA’s Initiatives).

We would like to propose the following:

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That schools have wired networking points around the school so that pupils can use desktop computers or laptops (without wireless cards) connected to a network and the internet.  Non-wireless/non-Bluetooth handheld mobile digital devices could be used for recording information/analysis/photography etc.  Data could then be downloaded onto networked computers using a wired connection.

When ‘Building schools for the future’, wired networking points within classrooms/areas and adequate space for computers could be part of the design (whilst also keeping low frequency 50/60Hz electromagnetic fields within safe limits as described in the Bio-Initiative report).

A non-wireless approach may not be as convenient or cheap as a wireless one, and for some schools it is likely to be viewed as a step backwards.  But long-term illness and premature death must surely be considered inconvenient and the possibility of these should not be dismissed lightly.  Being happy to take risks with your own health is one thing, but taking them for other people’s children, young people and staff in school is a different matter.  A safe learning environment is also likely to be an attraction for many pupils/families and staff when selecting nurseries, schools or Universities.

Schools can aim for excellence in their use of ICT throughout the school and community whilst also protecting pupils and staff with a no-wireless ICT policy.

Everyone involved in decisions about the future of ICT in education must surely have the health and wellbeing of children and young people positioned firmly at the centre of their considerations.