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Parents' protest brings down cell-phone mast

A Plymouth infants school is to have a Vodaphone transmitter removed from its grounds after uproar by parents who fear their children's health is at risk.

For the head and governors of Plaistow Hill infants school, who unwittingly inherited the problem, it has all been an unwelcome controversy. And as transmitters go up throughout Britain, other schools are likely to face similar protests.

But Powerwatch, an independent group offering information on radiation and health, says schools and parents are over-reacting. Schools could lose out on payments from mobile phone companies, only to find a mast going up next door.

At Plaistow Hill infants parents demonstrated and threatened to keep their children at home because of three mobile phone transmitters. As well as the Vodafone mast in the grounds, there is also a Cellnet mast on nearby land. Work on a third mast was stopped by protests.

Governors have now assured parents the Vodafone mast will be removed - but it is unlikely to be until the contract expires in two years.

None of the present governors nor the head were in office when the contract for the Vodafone mast was agreed. And the school's local education authority at that time was Devon county council Plymouth City Council, which became the education authority as a result of local government re-organisation, says a number of its schools have mobile-phone masts on their roofs, after deals struck by Devon, governing bodies and phone companies.

"As a policy we're not going to encourage these any more," said spokesman Ian Blackhouse. "The general feeling is that if they're causing concerns, we don't want them on school premises."

The number of UK schools used as transmitter sites is unknown. Vodafone and Cellnet, who have nearly 7 million UK customers between them, said they do not keep statistics on site ownership.

Some countries, including Germany, New Zealand and parts of the United States, have banned antennae from schools. But Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch says this is a knee-jerk reaction.

"These masts shine out sideways, just like a lighthouse beaming out power in a fairly narrow field," he said. "If you've got the mast on top of the school, you get virtually zero radiation in the school itself. But if it goes 100 metres to the side, the levels are very much higher.

"In a number of schools governors have turned them down. Then the masts just went up in a field next to the school. They're far worse off - they don't get the cash, which these days can be anything up to pound;10,000.

"As you have got to be surrounded by them anyway, the schools might as well be taking their x thousands a year."

Ingrid Dickinson, a mother from south-west London, disagrees. Two years ago she took her son Anthony, then 15, out of his community college, convinced a mobile-phone antenna there was causing his headaches.

"While I was trying to get my son into a different school, I found most of the schools around here had them," she said.

Dr Michael Clark, spokesman for the National Radiological Protection Board, which advises the Government on radiation health risks, said there was no evidence from any published studies indicating any serious health effects from mobile-phone masts.

* The Research and Information on State Education Trust's report on school reports and parents' evenings featured in last week's TES can be ordered by sending pound;6 plus pound;0.75 postage per copy to RISE, 54 Broadwalk, London E18 2DW.

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