Laptops if you're older

Plaid Cymru rethinks manifesto pledge to give free computers to all pupils over 11

FREE LAPTOPS will be provided for selected children if Plaid Cymru triumphs in the ballot box, it was confirmed this week.

But the party has taken a step back from promising the costly computers to every child over 11, with a party spokesperson saying that safety issues had to be thrashed out first.

Plaid hopes the proposals will be a vote winner in the Welsh Assembly elections this May. Details were leaked earlier this week, with reports that a laptop would be offered to every pupil entering secondary school in the party's manfesto.

Alun Shurmer, communications manager for Plaid Cymru, claimed the gift-wrapped scheme had "not been plucked out of thin air".

He said: "We have looked at this carefully, taking similar schemes in Scotland and elsewhere into consideration. We have also looked closely at the cost.

"However, we have to now carefully consider whether children as young as 11 should be in possession of a laptop. It might be that we do it just for those pupils at GCSE and above," he added.

Mr Shurmer said that, if elected, Plaid would pilot the scheme for four years at an estimated cost of pound;20 million. He said the party recognised that the laptops would have to be configured to prevent any lapses in security.

But there was some conflict this week among union representatives over the merits of the scheme. Fears that handwriting and spelling could deteriorate topped concerns, as well as funding. Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said having a laptop could affect children's readiness for exams.

He said: "It's an interesting idea. And yes, we do need to continue to keep youngsters prepared for the world they are going to work in - we live in a world that involves a lot of IT.

"But an interesting dimension is that, at the moment, all the public exams rely on handwriting and a very different style of thinking and working is required for responding in handwriting compared with when responding on computer.

"We also have to ask where the funding for this would come from. It cannot be a case of robbing Peter to pay for Paul."

Geraint Davies, Welsh secretary of teachers' union the NASUWT Cymru, queried whether the computers would be safe in the possession of children.

He said: "We would need to ensure pupils would respect the laptops and make good and proper use of these machines.

"There would also be worries over storage. These have to be carried around - they are portable, but not like a pencil case."

Last year, Welsh inspection body Estyn reported that computer shortages and faulty machines were largely to blame for weak standards in ICT in almost half of the secondary schools it inspected in 2004-5. An Assembly government working group is presently looking at whether an ICT strategy is needed to raise standards after it was found that performance is not matching investment.

The rise of cyber bullying has been well documented over the past year, including the use of abusive emails and text messaging.

But Sara Reid, deputy children's commissioner for Wales, said she was unable to comment on the issue because the commission cannot be seen to favour any particular political party in the run-up to this year's Assembly elections.

Political parties are presently lining up to launch their manifestos ahead of the May elections that could prove a cliffhanger for the current minority Labour administration. Plaid Cymru will announce its proposals next Tuesday ahead of its manifesto launch in March.

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