Page last updated at 15:00 GMT, Tuesday, 23 September 2008 16:00 UK

Low-income homes to get net links

children using screen
Children increasingly have access to sophisticated kit at school

Parents on low incomes who have not provided their children with computers and internet access will get "vouchers" to do so, the government has said.

The scheme to tackle England's "digital divide", available nationally in a year's time, will cost 300m.

It will cover broadband access, software and computers if necessary.

The Conservatives said the initiative was not new. The National Union of Teachers welcomed it but said families' ongoing costs would be a problem.

The idea was first proposed in January 2007, when the government set up a taskforce to ensure all children had access to the internet outside school.

It has echoes of a previous scheme, the Home Computing Initiative, which was scrapped without warning in the 2006 Budget.

It had allowed companies to supply their employees with PC equipment as a tax-free benefit and was seen as a way of getting computers into low-income households.

'Benefits'

Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the Labour Party conference: "We want to enable all families to use the internet to link back to their children's school - and so [Schools Minister] Jim Knight is announcing that we will fund over a million extra families to get online, on the way to our ambition of Britain leading the world with more of our people than any other major economy able to access the internet and broadband."

The scheme will in fact apply only to England.

Mr Knight said: "Home access to ICT has educational, economic and social benefits. In fact, it is now clear that pupils without internet access are at a disadvantage to their peers.

"Home access is increasingly becoming an essential part of a good education and having a computer with internet access should be seen as equally essential as having a school bag, a uniform or a pen and paper."

They were no longer luxury items and young people were now at a significant disadvantage without them.

"It is unacceptable that the digital divide is growing with 35% of families having no access to the internet and around a million children having no computer at home. That's why we are taking this unprecedented step."

Support

The initial Home Access package for families in receipt of income support or unemployment benefits includes:

  • a free laptop or other computer with relevant software and hardware bought with a Home Access voucher
  • broadband for all young people between seven and 19 whose families are eligible
  • support covering important areas such as internet safety, effective use of technology for learning and a technical support helpline.
  • Officials were not immediately able to say how the scheme would work. For example, if two households had similar incomes but one had chosen to provide their children with internet access and the other had opted for a newer car, it was not clear how the entitlement would be assessed.

    But Mr Knight's main point was underlined by a study carried out on behalf of the Post Office.

    This showed that nearly a third of teachers now set homework which required use of the internet, and that 58% of children thought their homework would suffer without it.

    The acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Christine Blower, said: "The government must be congratulated for trying to end the digital divide in education. Every youngster should have an equal start in life, and that includes equal access to the internet."

    Students could not be expected to go to the library or a friend's house for access.

    "However, the reason why some families do not have a computer is because of the running costs that incur beyond the initial purchase," she added.

    "Enough financial provision must be given to ensure that they can maintain the upkeep and general running costs that computers involve."



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