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Beware the digital divide

A growing split between rich and poor in computer technology cannot be ignored, writes Chris Johnston

THE "digital divide" could be even more serious than the lack of books for poor families 100 years ago, the architect of the Government's National Grid for Learning strategy has warned.

Lord Stevenson, who chaired the 1997 commission into computers in schools, has seen his vision implemented by the Government. Now he talks of the growing number of pupils who have home computers and Internet connections that allow them to e-mail homework to teachers or check assignments on school websites.

Combined with the substantial increase in school equipment, this is beginning to allow teachers to change the way schools operate. While it is a great boost to the education system, some pupils are in danger of being left behind, says Lord Stevenson.

"We have to start looking very, very hard at the issue of the minority of children who, because of their background, are never going to have the right kit at home," he says.

"It is a difficult problem to which there will not be a perfect solution - any more than lack of access to books in homes was ever completely solved by public libraries."

He says the Government has taken steps in the right direction by announcing a network of public learning centres equipped with computers. However, those without home computers are often the least confident about using technology, and getting them to use the centres will be "easier said than done".

Lord Stevenson, who will speak next Friday at the BETT educational technology exhibition in London, says that computers are ot a panacea, but the debate over their benefits in schools is now over.

The European Commission has set 2003 as the target date by which all pupils leaving school should be "digitally literate".

The Lottery-funded programme to train teachers in using computers in the classroom was welcomed by Lord Stevenson, who predicts it will make a significant impact on the profession, but he added that it is important to ensure that the pound;230 million is spent effectively.

On the question of whether the initiative would benefit from teachers having their own computers, he says: "Probably the best way to train teachers in computers is for them to have their own laptop. I support the Government making it possible for more and more teachers [to buy their own computer]."

The cost and capacity of Internet access for schools is another area where Lord Stevenson would like to see more action. Many primary schools still found it difficult to pay pound;700 a year for an ISDN (high-capacity) link. Devising a strategy to give schools access to very fast Internet links is another priority, he says.

Lord Stevenson, chairman of Pearson plc and Halifax, looks forward to the day when schools took more ownership of information and communication technology issues.

"As an increasing number of parents, governors and teachers become ICT-literate, you will see the governing bodies of schools saying: 'This is what we want to do for our school to improve our education.' I would expect to see schools deliberately spending a bigger percentage of their budgets on ICT as they learn the value it can add to what they are doing."

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