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Grand design for Britain's intellectual gold mines

The Government's schemes for IT in education have been well documented, but what are the opposition parties planning? Jack Kenny talks to Labour's Chris Smith and Nigel Jones from the Liberal Democrats.

Information Superhighway! Here's the reality. Isn't it wonderful that in 1995 No 10 Downing Street is looking at the possibility, sometime in the future, of introducing electronic mail. Tim Eggar, who is heading a Department of Trade and Industry initiative on the Internet is one MP who has rarely touched a computer. Last year the House voted to make a modem available to each MP, despite the fact that half of them do not have a computer. My own children, nine-year-old twin daughters, go to St James primary in Cheltenham. Last month one of the governors was talking about a levy on each of the parents of Pounds 54 so that we would not have to make any teachers redundant."

Nigel Jones, MP for Cheltenham and Liberal Democrat spokesperson on things technological, came to Parliament from the computer industry and is not only irritated by the lack of information technology in the infrastructure of the House, but in the country as a whole and in schools in particular.

The Houses of Parliament often appear to be locked into the past, antagonistic to change, a place to be stared at rather than to work in.

Nigel Jones came to Parliament after the last election from ICL where he had been working in software and project management. There he had access to a world-wide electronic mail system and hadn't used paper for years. Arriving in Parliament, he was taken to see the policeman at the members' entrance who took out a large key, went to an ornate door which concealed the stationery cupboard and was given paper and compliment slips.

He claims to be fortunate to be working with Paddy Ashdown who, he feels, is more IT-literate than the other party leaders. Undoubtedly Ashdown's enthusiasm for the Internet and the Information superhighway grows out of the fact that many Liberal Democrat constituencies are in areas such as Scotland and Cornwall that would benefit enormously from a planned communications infrastructure.

Nigel Jones is arguing for a genuine commitment to information technology in education to go into the next Liberal Democrat manifesto. He points out that one of Paddy Ashdown's favourite concepts is the need to mine the gold in people's heads. The gold has to be developed and to do this Nigel Jones wants to see all schools linked up by the end of the century. He maintains that the role of government is to ensure that the electronic highway infrastructure in the towns and cities also goes to the villages and the rural schools. He feels that at the moment the largely American cable companies have been picking off the lucrative towns and cities: United Artists are cabling his constituency in Cheltenham. His colleague Alex Carlisle MP wonders who is going to cable the less well-populated Montgomeryshire.

"There are principles. Our principle is universal access to the information society, otherwise we will create a new category of poor - the information poor. Only BT can create that access and yet they are prevented from doing so. It is like the Olympic final; you don't shoot your best athlete in the foot before you start the race and give all his American rivals pep pills." Nigel Jones claims that BT has Pounds 15 billion that it wants to invest in the information infrastructure, but as it is a commercial company it needs a return on its investment.

He believes the creation of a new communications infrastructure is as important as the roads, or as the railways were in the last century. He argues that businesses will move to where there is a good information structure. He also feels the environmental issues are intermingled: changing work patterns will reduce the strain on the conventional roads and reduce pollution.

The Liberal Democrats, Jones points out, were the only party that went into the last election with a commitment to finance developments in education. They proposed a penny on tax. Nigel Jones knows that IT developments and superhighway developments will be difficult in the current economic climate in schools.

He is trying to get a specific commitment into the next manifesto. His belief is that when children reach the age of 10 they should be given a computer for the rest of their school career, and he calculates the cost would be about Pounds 200 million a year. A penny on tax raises Pounds 2 billion. "It could be done easily. It would be a statement about how important we, as a society, view education. The children are the future; the superhighway is the future; we have to bring them together."

Minority parties can be cavalier with commitments. Jones does not accept that the minority status will be permanent and says that a small group can put forward a clear message by putting education at the heart of all that it does. He feels that the Liberal Democrats can be the catalyst for change. He wants to see parties working together to show that Parliament is serious about working for a decent future: "It is becoming more obvious to more and more people that this Government is damaging the education of our children and the information future of the country. I am optimistic, however, that we can get things together. It is good to see that in the other parties there are increasing numbers of people who want to get to grips with these issues."

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