Computers and schools were big news last week. The Government launched its Connecting the Learning Society consultation document, the first step in its ambitious plan to connect Britain's schools and colleges to the Internet; and Microsoft boss Bill Gates had his momentous meeting with Tony Blair. But the Government's decision to hand advisory roles to Microsoft, RM (formerly Research Machines) and BT has upset rival organisations, who see it as a threat to technological diversity in education.
"We were disturbed by the perception that's been gained by the Government aligning itself with Microsoft and Research Machines," says Alan Teece, general manager for education with ICL. His company has been pioneering the "managed services" approach that the Government favours for connecting schools, and is a key sponsor of UK NetYear, a government-backed initiative to promote the Internet in schools.
"It's only a perception, but it could be damaging," Mr Teece says. "The National Grid for Learning is an inclusive thing, not exclusive, and ICL helped create the vision and even coined the term National Grid for Learning. We're concerned because we don't want to see any one organisation dominate. There are others that are equally relevant to schools."
Xemplar, the education company that sells services using products from Apple and Acorn, is equally concerned. Brendan O'Sullivan, head of Xemplar, says: "We welcome the whole initiative and we have been involved in the consultation. But, like ICL, I am disappointed at the way the announcement has been shanghaied by Microsoft, RM and BT.
"This is dangerous, because the key thing that has driven education technology for a decade is innovation. If Microsoft gets a handle on it, innovation will go out of the window. The worrying thing is that the Government allowed itself to be compromised, although I don't think for a minute they did it deliberately."
The Government is playing down the significance of the appointments, however. It says Microsoft, RM and BT will be advising only on the establishment of a resource centre for teachers on the Net (a "virtual teachers' centre"), just one part of the National Grid for Learning. And Kim Howells, minister for lifelong learning, said last week that people should not "read too much into it". Commercial involvement in building the grid would be highly competitive, and he welcomed advice from other companies, particularly British ones which could benefit from subsequent overseas sales.
The Department for Education and Employment, which also announced Pounds 100 million worth of information and communications technology (ICT) grants for schools, wants responses to Connecting the Learning Society by December 8. (The Pounds 100 million is actually Pounds 50 million of government money. The other Pounds 50 million will have to found through local "fund-matching".) The document outlines the scale of the task the DFEE is proposing. The national grid will be a mini-Internet dedicated to education. The aim is to connect 32,000 state, grant-maintained and independent schools, with more than 450,000 teachers and 9 million pupils; 540 further education colleges and 360 other institutions, with 250,000 staff and 4 million students; and 4,300 libraries, with 6,000 librarians and 60 per cent of the adult population as customers.
The DFEE wants to set up a prototype of the grid early next year, and to have the system up and running by the autumn. By 2002 all schools and colleges should be on-line.
The department also has an ambitious plan to offer all of Britain's teachers computer training or retraining, again by 2002. It is understood that Pounds 120 million of National Lottery funds will be released for this project.
As well as connecting institutions, the DFEE wants material for the grid - Web sites, for instance - which is where the teachers' centre fits in. The Government does not have to initiate all the content, however. For example, the BBC is thought to be investing Pounds 3 million a year in Web resources for education.
The launch of Connecting the Learning Society included details of UK NetYear, which is intended to "kick-start" the grid. Based on the US NetDays concept, it is an independent project to help schools build their own networks and connect to the Internet. The UK version is sponsored by ICL, the Daily Telegraph, Sun Microsystems (Microsoft's major rival) and Cisco Systems and will be launched next month.
Also announced last week was the BTOftel offer to schools of high-capacity Net access (ISDN2) for Pounds 790 per year, with free connection. This would give schools 10 hours of connection per school day - up from the previous modest three hours a day - but probably not enough hours to persuade schools to use the Internet for eveningweekend clubs or for literacynumeracy drives during holidays. BT will also offer unlimited phone access to the Net for Pounds 445 a year (Pounds 100 for connection).
Finally, at the end of the week it was revealed that Culture Secretary Chris Smith is to oversee a Pounds 750 million plan to connect libraries by 2002.
"The Government's bold moves to get the National Grid for Learning off the ground as fast as possible are both timely and challenging," says Dominic Savage, chief executive of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA).
"Any credible initiative which has been carefully prepared, is well supported and fits with the National Grid for Learning concept is to be welcomed. What is certainly not needed at this time is suspicion and tension between companies, for partnerships are the only way this complex vision can be achieved.
"BESA recognises its important role in enabling such initiatives to be open, so that where possible the industry may participate and offer diverse and cost-effective solutions. Currently we are involved in UK NetYear, and all the companies involved will be BESA members who have agreed to abide by the BESA code of practice."
Connecting the Learning Society from order hotline: 0845 22260 (fax 33360) or from DFEE Web site at http:www. open.gov.ukdfeedfeehome.htm E-mail responses to superhighways@ dfee.gov.uk