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A circuit to light up South London

A project south of the Thames is one of the early links in the Government's promised national learning network

"TRAINING first, technology second" was the message from the Stevenson Report on schools information and communication technology, commissioned by Tony Blair two years before he became prime minister.

The influential report, which became the basis for the National Grid for Learning announced late last year, urged the Government not to throw equipment at schools but to train staff to feel comfortable with ICT.

Schools are now preparing bids for Pounds 100 million set aside in the Government's standards fund for ICT training. But in south-west London one project is already showing how it might work.

The Learning Circuit is a partnership of AZTEC training and enterprise council and Roehampton Institute which will - potentially - cover all 217 schools in the boroughs of Merton, Wandsworth and Kingston.

Training and enterprise council involvement is thought to be unusual. But it's part of AZTEC's wider strategy for regenerating south-west London: giving children and adults high-tech skills will help them find jobs and, in the long term, attract blue-chip business to the area.

It is that which persuaded the Government Office for London to part with Pounds 4.5 million and has won the approval of lifelong learning minister Kim Howells.

Total funding is Pounds 13m, though more than half is in kind from the ICT industry, and it will be some time before most schools see any new equipment. The key is assessment and training to help schools determine what they want. The question of what hardware and software they need comes last, to the surprise of many schools across the country.

The result is a use of ICT that may not always be revolutionary - plenty of schools already use video conferencing - but should be more effective.

"What we bring is a clarity of thinking that means investment pays dividends instead of being wasted because people don't ask the right questions in the right order," says Peter Maher, the Learning Circuit's executive director.

"Suppliers don't always have schools' needs as their first priority," he adds. "Part of our role is research and development for suppliers. Working on the ground we're significantly closer to understanding what schools need."

And this is not a one-off. The vision is of a programme sustainable after the Government cash runs out. Mr Maher talks of marketing the assessment programme to fund equipment and training updates.

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