Monday, August 17, 1998 Published at 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Powering up the Grid for Learning
Half of all pupils will have e-mail accounts by 2002
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan
Last year, still basking in the afterglow of his general election victory, Tony Blair promised to put information technology at the heart of his crusade to raise standards in Britain's schools.
"By 2002 every one of the 32,000 schools in Britain will have modern computers, the educational programmes to go on them, the teachers skilled to teach on them, the pupils skilled to use them, connected to the superhighway for free," Mr Blair announced.
This commitment to the transforming powers of new technology, echoing Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology", has set an ambitious target for the Department for Education and Employment, local education authorities and schools.
But as the deadline moves closer, how is the project to put the country's schools online progressing?
At present, according to the Department for Education and Employment and the Scottish Office, there are an estimated 9,400 schools in England, Wales and Scotland connected to the Internet, showing that within the next three school years more than two-thirds of schools will have to get themselves online.
However, the agency responsible for developing the National Grid for Learning, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, believes that the figure for connections is already higher and that the target is "on track" to be reached.
Although there is a central target for connecting schools, there is no single, centralised scheme for achieving this. Instead there is a patchwork quilt of local initiatives, driven by local authorities, individual schools or industry-led projects such as UK NetYear.
For schools seeking funding to get online the DFEE has invited bids for information technology projects under its Standards Fund, which, including matched funding from local authorities, has £100m available. As well as the aim to get every school on the Internet, BECTA believes that another significant target is the government's expectation that at least 50% of pupils and 75% of teachers by 2002 will have their own individual e-mail accounts.
National Grid for Learning
While the figure for connections might only mean a single computer in a single classroom linked to the Internet, the distribution of e-mail addresses will show the depth of involvement in information technology in schools.
The most visible evidence so far of the National Grid for Learning is its prototype Internet site.
At present, the site has key documents for schools, such as a database of guidelines from the Standards and Effectiveness Unit and a "Virtual Teacher Centre", which provides classroom resources, an online meeting room and advice on professional development. There are also specialist pages for school governors and further education.
As the Grid grows, more and more information will be made available on line, building the Website into a hub of the education system.
"The expansion will have to be organic, developing in breadth and depth to provide services for the many different interests of users," says BECTA's Andre Wagstaff.
"It's important to get each stage right, so that the first experience of users is a good one. If people have a bad first experience of technology it takes a long time to change that impression."
Savings in administration
"People will want to use the grid when they begin to see its benefits. For example, if it can make administration easier, reducing the paper blizzard of documents sent to school, then teachers will want to use what's on offer," said Mr Wagstaff.
The training of teachers will be an important element of schools making the most of information technology.
With this in mind, the government has laid down training targets, beginning with the requirement for all newly-qualified teachers to be trained in information technology from next year. By 2002 all teachers will be expected to be confident users of new technology.
To make this possible, £200m has been set aside from lottery funds to provide computer training for teachers.
In another initiative, 10,000 headteachers and senior teachers will be given access to portable computers with Internet connections, with the aim of increasing their familiarity with information technology.
The long-term aim of this investment in educational technology is to develop what the government hopes will be a high-skill, high-earnings economy, one which is able to take advantage of emerging technologies such as the Internet.
"Technology has revolutionised the way we work and is now set to transform education. Children cannot be effective in tomorrow's world if they are trained in yesterday's skills. Nor should teachers be denied the tools that other professionals take for granted," said Tony Blair, introducing the concept of the Grid for Learning.
In the next 10 school terms between now and 2002, the theory will have to be put into practice.