In the UK schools are installing a lot of computers. Those of other countries are installing more - the pupil-computer ratio in US secondary schools is down to around 5:1 (with a pledge to connect every classroom to the Internet in 2000) - while many others are installing less; in most German primary schools, the only place you'll find a computer is the school office.
However, until prices have fallen so low that a personal computer becomes just that - something children bring to school with their pens, calculator and sports kit - a lesson with a computer to hand will remain a special rather than everyday experience. This will be the case for another year or two - a more significant period for students than it may at first sound.
Computers are great productivity tools - as every redundant middle manager will confirm - but they are also great creative tools, as an exploding digital creative industry spanning everything from desktop publishing to the latest movie will also confirm. So while computers remain relatively scarce and costly, we have to make tough choices about the way that we use them: should we focus their use on productivity or on creativity? The curriculum is desperately crowded; it is easier to add new areas (environmental sustainability) than to drop old favourites, even when they are clearly past their sell-by dates. So it is tempting to allow computers to become learning productivity tools: tools that test, deliver content without eliciting contribution, drill pupils up to speed, allow four times the number of homework tasks to be completed and cram even more into the school day and the children's heads.
This dismal notion of learning productivity prepares children only for the mindless tedium of a low-wage, low-value economy. How often have we heard the staffroom howl that "they just cut stuff from a CD encyclopedia and pasted it into their work without thinking"? But this reflects more on a failure of classroom and homework tasks than on the foolishness of children.
These new tools demand more stretching and creative tasks and better assessment strategies if we are to remain a high-value economy with intelligent, sociable children. We are not alone in this search. In 1996 the Japanese group Keizai Doyukai, which has a similar role to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), took a long and searching look at its education system and their under-performing economy. Where was the source of the inspiration that had produced the Walkman and that took the step to change motorcycle design?
Much effort was expended in testing Japanese school students and comparing their scores to peers around the world. Japanese education could be presented as "world class", but something was missing. Keiza Doyukai concluded that: "The post-war education system in Japan sought to eliminate deviations in students and deliver an equal, uniform education throughout the land. This was effective in reaching the goal of catching up with industrialised nations. Now, however, the nation is in need of highly creative and independent individuals."
The report continued: "Fostering individuals with these characteristics will require educational reform starting from the elementary level and taking at least 10 to 20 years to be effective." And, Japan being Japan, reform was instigated there and then, embracing ICT to help develop, but not provide, that creativity.
Of all the capabilities that our school students develop, creativity is probably the one most likely to vouchsafe our economic growth and our ranking position in the league table of world economies. Of the many things children do at school or at home, the one least likely to be replaced by a computer's capability is that of creativity.
Encouragingly, much of the pioneering work with ICT in the UK has stressed the computer's creative uses. Trawling through the dusty assets of the UK's National Archive of Educational Computing, it quickly becomes apparent that the ability to make or create with a computer was what caught our attention in those primitive days of tape-loading programs and incomprehensible code. And what is interesting is that those early computers, and the creative children that harnessed them, provided the foundations for our phenomenally successful computer software industry.
For children to work creatively with a computer requires us to accept a diversity and uncertainty of outcomes as they exceed even our most ambitious expectations for their progress. If we are to move forward, we need to accept that standards do not require standardisation and inspection teams need to be helped to value creativity above conformity and content. Base capabilities still matter, and are a basic right. But in 1999 the government think-tank Demos confirmed: "Creative application of knowledge cannot be practiced within a pre-defined curriculum structure if it is focused too heavily on content at the expense of depth of understanding and breadth of application."
We must strive to ensure computers are harnessed to achieve that creativity, understanding and breadth of application. We need a national push to put great creative software tools on to our children's screens and to exclude the testing tools until computers are no longer scarce. Walking around many school computer facilities it is depressing how often they feature notices about what must not be done. Creative ICT schools celebrate the unexpected and reveal how it was done; it's a lesson the UK examination and curriculum structures have yet to learn.
Professor Stephen Heppell is a member of the Standards Task Force and the Creative Industries Task Force.