Ministers ' commitment to fund a huge expansion in classroom technology cannot, it seems, come too soon. Findings of Government-financed research highlight the growing inequality of children's access to computers which threatens to undermine Tony Blair's drive to build an inclusive Britain.
Only last week schools minister Charles Clarke, speaking at the BETT educational technology show in London, acknowledged the dangers of creating a new "underclass" unless every student is given the chance to learn to use a computer.
Since the last election, New Labour has promised an extra pound;700 million to boost investment in school-based technology - including pound;450m on the National Grid for Learning. A further pound;230m is proposed to train teachers in the use of IT.
Ministers will be hoping this investment - over three years - will go some way towards addressing the burgeoning gap between education's haves and have-nots.
The research shows that not only has home computer ownership grown rapidly during the 1990s, but that children from working-class and single-parent families are being severely handicapped.
According to data from the British Household Panel Study, a yearly survey administered by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, 21.6 per cent of households had a personal computer in 1991 compared to 29 per cent in 1997. The distribution of home PCs is becoming increasingly skewed towards middle-class homes, however, putting children from poorer backgrounds at a major disadvantage when it comes to information technology.
Today, employment possibilities, and consumer choices are increasingly structured by the ability to access, manipulate and make sense of information. The ability to use word-processing and spreadsheet software, search a database or use the Internet are becoming almost essential everyday skills for functioning in the post-industrial world.
These skills are best acquired young. A home computer, perhaps bought by a parent wishing to bring work home from the office, may initially be used by children for playing games but, as the new research shows, quickly becomes a tool for homework. It is this kind of every day usage, writing essays, searching CD-Roms, or surfing the Web which gives those children lucky enough to be in a home with a computer the confidence and easy familiarity with information technology that makes learning more advanced applications easy.
The BHPS survey, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, collects data from a random sample of 9,500 people in 5,500 households across Britain. From this data researchers have been able to map the spread of home PCs.
The findings show that certain types of households are acquiring home PCs much more quickly than others and support the need for major investment in information technology for schools to prevent children from poorer households being excluded.
In general children with parents in professional or managerial employment are most likely to have access to a home computer. In 1991 31 per cent of professional homes had a PC and the figure had risen to 48 per cent by 1996. By contrast there has been little increase in the number of home computers in clerical, skilled, manual or unskilled factory workers' homes, with only about 30 per cent of these homes having a computer across all six years of the survey (see graphic).
A breakdown based on the employment status of the head of household (anachronistically defined as the male partner, the definition of the Office of National Statistics) reveals a similar skewed distribution pattern. By 1996, 44 per cent of self-employed households had a home PC. The figure for paid employees' homes was 37.5 per cent, while that for households headed by an unemployed person was less than 27 per cent (see graphic).
Similar differences between households composed of couples with children and single-parent household were also found. In 1996, 44.5 per cent of households composed of a couple with children had a PC compared to only 30 per cent of single parent households.
The data also highlights similar inequality in Internet access. Overall, few children had home access to the Internet in 1996 . However, 14 per cent of those households with a PC and headed by a professional had an Internet connection, compared to just 4 per cent of unskilled factory workers' homes with a computer.
Although children's access to home IT is unevenly distributed, the uses to which they put the technology are similar. Unsurprisingly, game playing is the most popular use - 96 per cent of computers in unskilled manual workers' homes are used for this purpose compared to 85 per cent of those in clerical workers' homes, 89 per cent of those in skilled manual workers' homes, and 86 per cent of those in professionals' homes.
Education is, however, the second most common use of computers in households with children. Between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of children in households where there is a computer use it for their homework.
The findings provide a powerful argument for those who believe that greater investment in schools IT is important in widening opportunities as well as improving skills. While some critics argue that traditional core skills of reading and writing will suffer if too much emphasis is placed on IT, this misses the point that accessing and searching for information through the Internet actually requires, and develops these very skills.
Other critics argue that increased levels of IT in schools will somehow increase inequalities. The BHPS findings, however, suggest the reverse. The gap between home access to computers is increasing between those children from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, those with parents in work and those with unemployed parents and those fortunate enough to live with both parents compared to those living with only one parent. In the light of this it seems likely that only rapid Government investment in school IT will prevent children from less advantaged backgrounds from being seriously disadvantaged in yet another dimension of their "life chances".
Jonathan Scales is a lecturer in the health and social services Institute at the University of Essex and a research associate with the Demos think-tank.Computers for beginners: see next week's Friday magazine