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Labour plans help for staff buying computers

Teachers bewildered by the choice of computers and software on the market are to get official help from this autumn.

Ministers are concerned that many teachers, who spend an estimated #163;30 million on educational software every year, have little help choosing products. But they would face fierce opposition if they were seen to give the sealof approval to some products at the expense of others in a free market.

The Government's guide will also include advice on how to get hooked up to the Internet and how to take advantage of other educational services offered on the information superhighway.

The advice will come as Government ministers prepare to launch the National Grid for Learning, promised in Labour's election manifesto, in a drive to improve the use of computers in the classroom. In addition, ministers hope to set up a system for "Kitemarking" computer software to show that it is of good quality - also a manifesto commitment.

The problem for the Government is how to make a "Kitemark" system work without being accused of interfering in the commercial marketplace.

The moves come as OFTEL, the telecommunications watchdog, wrestles with proposals from BT to link all schools up to the Internet in a deal hatched with Labour before the election. Under the plan schools would only be able to hook up to the Internet using access companies already on BT's network.

Don Cruickshank, OFTEL's director general, said last week that other telecommunications companies would "go spare" if BT's proposals went ahead.

Proposals for improving the use of computers in schools will be outlined in a consultation paper by the Department for Education and Employment to be published next month. The Government will also set out its strategy for information technology in schools in its forthcoming White Paper.

Information technology minister Kim Howells last week signalled the Government's resolve to train teachers better in the use of computers. He said the new National Grid for Learning, an electronic superhighway to enable teachers to exchange information, would be running by the end of the year.

In a separate move, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the National Council for Educational Technology and commercial companies have joined forces to produce advice for teachers on how to choose software.

They are planning to issue guidelines to advise teachers on what questions to ask when they are looking at software next January.

Neil McLean, SCAA's IT officer, said: "We want to help teachers make sure the software they buy is aimed at the right age level, that the language is apppropriate and that it provides a worthwhile educational experience.

"Teachers face lorryloads of information from suppliers on their products,and they need help in deciding what questions to ask before they hand over money."

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