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Summer curse of 'a plane a minute'

Inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education have now confirmed what teachers in schools near London's Heathrow Airport have long believed - that noise and fumes from aircraft is having a damaging effect on learning.

The issue has featured in recent OFSTED reports on at least three schools in the London borough of Hounslow - under the Heathrow flight path. Local headteachers believe the damage could be greater if the proposed fifth terminal at the airport gets the go-ahead.

At Bedfont infants, inspectors reported that "some lessons were adversely affected" by aircraft noise and air pollution, and suggested that governors monitor the levels. At Cranford juniors they found "high levels of exterior noise from the aircraft" had "some detrimental impact on the quality of learning".

A consortium of local education and health authorities has commissioned research by University College London on the effect on children's lives in and out of school of various environmental hazards, including aircraft noise. In a study similar to others in Los Angeles, Sydney and Munich, selected schools in Richmond and Hounslow have been fitted with noise and air pollution monitors. The findings will be presented to the public inquiry on Terminal 5 in December.

Schools in Hounslow, some on the Heathrow perimeter, are among the worst affected. In summer there can be up to a plane a minute overhead. "The noise is very intrusive, and you never get used to it,' says Christine Paskin, head of Beavers primary school. You often have to stop teaching. In the playground you can feel the sound waves bouncing off the walls."

At Lampton secondary school, which has planes passing only 300 feet above the top floor, PE teachers have to use sign language.

Music teachers have particular problems. Janice Carpenter, who teaches in several Hounslow schools, says: "In some schools the building vibrates, and you never get silence. You can't record children music-making, or play sound games with them."

The schools have soundproofing and air-conditioning, and in some cases double- or triple-glazing, but not all of it is effective. Replacing and upgrading the equipment every 15 years is costly: Hounslow is currently spending more than Pounds 1m on such work at a single school, but receives no Government grant towards this.

Some heads believe their pupils, most of whom are also subject to aircraft noise at home, are permanently affected. "They speak in a higher register, they find whispering difficult," says John Harrison, head of Bedfont Juniors. Steve Lloyd at Cranford agrees: "Competing with these noise levels means that children are extremely loud."

* Children at a Richmond primary school have started a junior branch of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, an anti-Terminal 5 pressure group. Laura and Nicola Heath of St Stephen's School have collected 150 children's signatures for a petition.

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