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Blair switches on the Grid

The Prime Minister was due to be beamed from the Western Isles to West Lothian today (Friday) to make a symbolic announcement that the Government is to invest pound;62 million over the next three years to implement the National Grid for Learning in Scotland.

Tony Blair's visit to Scalpay School in the Western Isles was sandwiched between trips to Northern Ireland and the Queen at Balmoral when he arrived to open the island's new bridge to Harris.

A video-conference link to Deans Community High in Livingston will connect him to Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, and is intended as high-profile confirmation that schools in every part of Scotland will benefit from access to learning opportunities through the Grid.

Mrs Liddell was present to launch West Lothian's version known as Creatis (Creating the information society in West Lothian), a pound;7 million partnership between the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, West Lothian Council, Sun Micro, ICL and BT. She also unveiled the strategy document which sets out details of how the Grid is to be implemented in Scotland.

The announcements endorse previously trailed plans for all schools, colleges, universities and libraries to be connected to the Grid, based on the Internet, by 2002. The bulk of the extra funding, which follows the Treasury's comprehensive spending review, will go as yet another tranche of ring-fenced educational money to local authorities to purchase the necessary hardware.

The rest will be used to promote research into the most effective use of what is now known as information and communications technology (ICT), disseminate information, and develop specific Scottish content for the Grid.

The challenge will be considerable. Only 6,000 of the UK's 32,000 schools have an Internet connection (500 in Scotland), the majority based on just one computer. An estimated 60 per cent of all computers in schools are out of date, while 80 per cent of the UK's 450,000 teachers have still to be trained in the use of ICT.

The Scottish Office took the first steps to turning round the deficiencies in January when it revealed that up to pound;25 million of lottery cash would be forthcoming for teacher training in addition to the cash announced this week.

The strategy statement is expected to confirm Government targets for teacher training and for every pupil and teacher in the country to have their own free e-mail address. The Grid will offer curriculum, training and administration services to schools.

The Scottish Virtual Teacher's Centre, launched in January, is also an integral part of the brave new pedagogy, providing access to educational information and classroom resources.

The Scottish Office last year earmarked pound;115.7 million over five years to help modernise IT infrastructure in schools, but this has to be shared with improvements to school buildings. Glasgow estimates that it will need to spend at least pound;24.5 million over the next five years to bring its school computer stock up to date. It estimates that only 2,250 of 7,820 school computers qualify as "modern".

The city warns: "Most schools will be starting from a very low technological base and with very limited confidence in their own judgments about how to develop these infrastructures."

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