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Blair's cable full of hope for future

Labour's leader has said that every school is to be linked up to the information superhighway - for free.

It's a big idea, but it's not a new one. Tony Blair's speech at the Brighton conference on Tuesday, in which he announced that the Labour party had persuaded British Telecom to cable up every school, college, hospital and library to the information superhighway for free was immediately compared to Harold Wilson's promise that a new Britain would be forged in the "white heat of technology" - a few months before Labour swept to victory in 1964.

However, Tony Blair's idea probably owes more to President Clinton than Harold Wilson. Clinton and his vice-president, Al Gore, were asking American telephone and cable companies to connect schools to the superhighway back in 1993.

But what is the superhighway and what could it do for schools? Labour's deputy leader John Prescott more or less admitted that he had no idea when questioned on the subject by Jeremy Paxman on BBC2's Newsnight on Tuesday. He seemed to exclude himself from Blair's new, young Britain when he said that new technology was a matter for Mr Blair's generation rather than his own (there's only about 5 years between them).

Stephen Heppell, a professor at Anglia Polytechnic University and director of Ultralab, a learning research centre, is one of Labour's chief advisers on this policy, and had a clearer idea of what it would look like in practice. He said that Labour had stolen a march on the Government and suggested that the deal with BT amounted to a virtual admission on the part of some large corporations that Labour would win the next election.

"This means that children will be collaborating on projects with other children all over the world and teachers will be sharing expertise," Professor Heppell said. "This is something that teachers have always wanted, the technology is there." The only impediment, he said, had been the lack of political will to make the technology available for everyone. Schools would now be able to download films, TV programmes and entire libraries through the fibre-optic network.

Mr Heppell also said that Labour's vision of the future differed from the American one. "The Americans tend to think of the s superhighway more in terms of the M25 with a lot of shops along it.

"We see it in terms of links between learners, it will be participative - people will put things in as well as taking them out, they will be able to explore, exchange and debate the information."

Another bonus would be that educational material would be written for British children - currently many programs use American references and spellings. "At the moment you can read about basketball, but not netball, and so on."

The cost to BT of extending the fibre-optic cable network has been estimated at about Pounds 15 billion, although a company spokeswoman said on Wednesday that this could be an overestimate. In return, BT will be able to offer highly profitable multimedia and entertainment services online - the present Government regulations prohibit this. BT confirmed that the connection would be free for schools.

Mr Blair also promised that every child would have a lap-top computer, though no deal has yet been struck with any computer firm.

Shortly after Mr Blair's speech, Research Machines, a major supplier of IT systems and software to UK schools, reported a 31p leap in its share price, adding an estimated Pounds 5.5 million to the value of the company. RM's marketing director, John Netherton, said it was the most significant rise since RM was floated as a public company in December.

Margaret Bell, chief executive of the National Council for Educational Technology, welcomed Labour's "recognition of the fundamental link between education and technology, both in terms of building skills for the new millennium and in terms of raising standards".

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