Blair's slip road to superhighway

New tech is the latest new Labour offer, says Sean Coughlan. When Tony Blair delivered the latest instalment of his vision for Britain at his party's conference last week, he returned to a theme - new Labour, new technology.

"The age of achievement will be built on new technology," he promised, conjuring up images of a "national grid of learning", in which information technology would be harnessed by an education system designed for the needs of the new millennium. "Our aim is for every school to have access to the superhighway, the computers to deliver it and the education programmes to go on it," he said.

Ever since the phrase "information superhighway" migrated across the Atlantic a couple of years ago (via the Clinton Democrats), Labour has enthusiastically adopted the concept of an electronic communications network for education and training as a voter-friendly big idea. Although the Department for Education and Employment and the Department for Trade and Industry have supported their own superhighway initiatives, Labour has stolen much of the thunder for the concept of connecting schools and colleges to an information network.

Fitting in neatly with new Labour's image as a party of modernisers and echoing the spirit of Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology", Tony Blair has identified himself with the futuristic possibilities of the superhighway and promised that schools will be able to take full advantage of new digital technologies.

If the big idea of the superhighway has been for every school and college to be plugged into a huge Internet-style network, carrying links to libraries, museums and educational resources, then the big question is will schools be able to afford what it offers.

In this year's conference speech Tony Blair began to suggest some practical answers on funding: "Last year, I announced an agreement with BT to cable up schools, colleges, universities and libraries to the information superhighway for free. To their credit, the cable companies followed suit. Today we go further. The cable industry and BT have now given us a commitment to keep costs to our schools for access to the Internet and superhighway as low and predictable as possible. And they have given a commitment to achieve real reductions in prices for those schools."

What this means is that backroom deals are being hammered out between the telecommunications companies and Labour, addressing the key question of discounts for schools using on-line services. At present, if a school hooks up to the Internet it is paying full-rate phone charges - a cost that is a major deterrent to schools considering an Internet or e-mail connection.

With this announcement, Tony Blair is taking an important step in acknowledging that education will need a subsidised slip-road if it is going to get onto the superhighway. BT, the largest partner likely to sign up to this agreement, says that it would like to offer schools a discounted annual fixed rate for unlimited phone use, or other flexible charging arrangements, but regulatory legislation bars the company from making any exceptions for education. As a trade off, if rules were changed to enable BT to offer schools cheaper calls, a Labour government would be expected to relax regulations stopping the telephone giant from entering the cable television market.

As well as investigating a charging system that allows schools to afford to use the superhighway, Tony Blair earlier this year commissioned a committee of "independent experts" to report into the practicalities of implementing a superhighway for schools. Chaired by Dennis Stevenson, chairman of the trustees of the Tate Gallery, this commission has been taking evidence from teachers, industry, professional bodies and exam boards, to establish an audit of computers in schools and the needs for the future.

Less clear is what will be available for education on this superhighway. While a filtering system will exclude pornography and violence, what will be included will be the matter for an open competition.

At the heart of the plans is new Labour's vision of a post-manufacturing economy, in which Britain trades in high-tech skills. Creating a workforce with the necessary skills will depend on an education system with the necessary equipment and facilities, which will need considerable financial investment. The challenge for Labour will be to show that they can move beyond the rhetoric and make the superhighway a reality. As Tony Blair said: "A wire on its own is not enough."

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