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Hi-tech homework

The applicants for Millennium Fund sponsorship may be short of cash but they seldom lack imagination. In recent months the Millennium Commission has been approached by a Scots entrepreneur who wants to build a UFO observatory - complete with sci-fi creche - on the outskirts of Bonnybridge. And a Cornish syndicate has drawn up plans to convert a quarry into a latter-day Garden of Eden with the help of four 200ft-high biospheres.

By comparison The Prince's Trust's bid for Pounds 13 million to establish a national network of study support centres (page 16) looks almost prosaic. Nevertheless these centres could promote as much growth as any giant hothouse if they are as richly equipped and staffed as the Trust envisages.

The idea of opening study support centres in disadvantaged areas is far from new. The Prince's Trust has been involved in this work for five years, has provided funding for 150 centres and has issued advice to at least 1,500 schools interested in setting up their own centres. The Scots, too, are experienced in this field, and Strathclyde alone has earmarked Pounds 1. 5m for after-school study initiatives in the past year.

Even so, the proposal to set up 1,000 centres catering for up to 500,000 children is a hugely ambitious and imaginative plan which makes Gillian Shephard's Pounds 5m investment in 20 literacy and numeracy centres look almost half-hearted. It also seems to be a far more sensible way of promoting out-of-school study than David Blunkett's notion of making primary and secondary children spend a specific number of minutes on homework each evening - a suggestion that the Secondary Heads Association has again dismissed this week (page 4). However, if a future Labour government insists on fixing homework hours, the existence of a network of study centres will make it easier to comply with Mr Blunkett's demands.

Such considerations may not concern Virginia Bottomley and the other Commission members who will decide whether National Lottery cash should be channelled into this scheme. But there are grounds for optimism. Having been criticised for diverting so much lottery cash to opera houses and art galleries Mrs Bottomley and co. are eager to dispel the impression that they are as interested in high culture as the Government's chief curriculum adviser, Nick Tate (page 13). The national cycle paths network is one scheme that benefited from the anti-opera reaction. This may be another.

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