Every school in Scotland could be linked to a high-powered national computer network within two to three years, says Nicol Stephen, deputy minister for education, putting Scotland at the forefront of educational technology.
Speaking to The TES Scotland in an interview for this week's TES Online magazine (page six), Mr Stephen says that the Scottish Executive's proposals for a national education network will far exceed people's expectations and give Scotland "a world class infrastructure".
"Many think we might be looking at just rolling out ADSL (broadband over telephone lines) for our schools. There has been a lot in newspapers about its impact on business and homes - being able to pull down your video over your phone system, rather than going to your video shop. But we are actually looking at something significantly better than that," he says.
Consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers have produced a report for ministers, looking at the different options for a broadband network to link all schools, mirroring the SuperJanet network used by the universities.
The options under consideration involve working through individual local authorities, or a "sub-hub" for four or five authorities, or giving direct connections to each school.
Whichever approach is adopted, economies of scale and savings on telephony and communications costs could, says the minister, be huge. Broadband connections would allow chools fast and powerful two-way communications with a range of services including digital video, and everyone would be on a single massive education intranet.
But the costs would be high, and the only way the Executive could afford it, Mr Stephen says, would be if authorities bought in and partnerships were set up. "Big savings could be made if we invest in SuperJanet high bandwidth for schools. We can probably get more for our investment than we get at the moment in terms of upgrading from modems to high bandwidth. If by 2003-04 we are still investing in modem or even ISDN connections, we would be falling behind. We have got to make a step change".
An announcement and consultation are expected shortly. "There has got to be a process of consultation on this," Mr Stephen says, "but there has also got to be an urgency about it. If we don't move fast on this, then we are going to be left behind.
"Let's be in no doubt - the view of Scottish ministers would be, we will want to move ahead with this fast. We have got to get support. We don't want this to be seen as a top-down initiative that is going to be forced on schools and local authorities."
One difficulty is that a number of authorities are already tied into long-term contracts with computer companies like RM, ICL and Mitel which manage ICT across all their schools. Glasgow's partnership with Mitel runs until 2012. These contracts would have to be examined closely, but authorities could join the network when they are ready.