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IT report keeps both sides happy

Computers in the classroom are likely to become an election issue after the publication of an independent report this week which says all secondary school pupils should have their own e-mail addresses.

The Stevenson report should prove all the more attractive to both the big parties because part of its remit - from the Labour leader, Tony Blair, and his education spokesman, David Blunkett - was that recommendations should be achieved within existing funding. This it has not quite achieved, but on the other hand it is not advocating any expensive purchasing of new computers. There is no point until teachers are properly confident in using them, it says.

Although Dennis Stevenson, chairman of the trustees of the Tate Gallery and chairman-elect of the Pearson group, insisted that his inquiry should be politically impartial, its general tenor and some of its recommendations chime closely with stated Labour policy.

Other recommendations are more far-reaching: a departmental minister appointed specifically to improve information and communications technology (ICT) in schools, and the development of an "edu-net", enabling teachers and pupils to swap and develop educational software.

It says: "We have concluded that if the next government does not take steps to intensify the use of ICT in our schools, a generation of children - and a generation of adults as teachers - will have been put at enormous disadvantage with consequences for the UK that will be difficult to reverse."

Mr Stevenson said some of the report's recommendations were close to what Labour had been saying, while other parts were "not a million miles" from government policy.

In the short term, the report wants all young people to have a basic confidence and competence in using technology in all aspects of their learning, with teachers equally able to use IT at work. Within a decade, the report wants ICT "to be no longer a turning point but taken for granted - rather as electricity has come to be".

What the report does not do is advocate wholesale buying of computers. It says this would be counter-productive given the state of skills and confidence among many teachers and the lack of useful software. Instead, it wants money to be spent on training teachers, developing software, and enabling schools and individuals to get cheap access to the Internet.

It says a realistic strategy would consist mainly of small and low-key initiatives. It says the most important need is to formulate a strategy, appointing a government minister to oversee it. Teacher training should take into account the need for people who will be working in the classroom to become competent and confident. Hands-on experience is invaluable, says the report, suggesting tax breaks might be a useful way of getting computers for teachers.

The report says that 22 per cent of homes own modern computers, with projected ownership between 44 and 55 per cent by 2000. This means the Government needs to address the problems of the "have-nots", perhaps by lending equipment, setting up cybercentres, ensuring school computers are available after hours or providing buses with the latest technology.

Labour has suggested that every child should have access to a laptop, advocated a Learning Grid of educational software, has arranged for schools to be given cable connections free of charge and plans to spend National Lottery money on training teachers in technology.

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