A question of will

Charles Clarke, the junior minister for school standards, is not a computer freak, but knows what he wants done. He talks to Chris Johnston

By conversational standards, he is not exactly frank but, in this age of spin-doctoring, the mere fact that Charles Clarke concedes that not all is rosy in the world of information and communications technology and education is a significant admission.

He became the new junior minister for school standards, under Estelle Morris, in July's Cabinet reshuffle, assuming the responsibility for ICT in schools previously held by Kim Howells.

Clarke, 48, has a computer at home for the Internet and email, as well as word processing and spreadsheets, but admits he is not as familiar with such technology as he would like. The minister faces a steep learning curve, but appears well versed on the relevant issues.

Clarke says Tony Blair wants schools to be more closely linked to technology than they have been because education is critical to the ICT industry. He has had some industry experience, even if it was in 1968 after graduating from Cambridge. He worked as a programmer on what was then Britain's largest computer. He recalls writing an interactive program - something not often managed 30 years ago.

The minister is no stranger to the world of education either - he was president of the National Union of Students from 1975 to 1977 before becoming a maths lecturer. Real politics beckoned in 1981 when he became a researcher for Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, and then his chief of staff for nine years. After a stint on Hackney council in east London and heading a public affairs management consultancy, he was elected MP for Norwich South last year.

So, after three months in the job, what are Clarke's priorities? Top of the list is getting teachers to feel confident about using computers in the classroom. He is taking advice on how best to use the Pounds 230 million of National Lottery money to improve teachers' ICT skills. "The level of competence and confidence throughout the teaching profession is very patchy and a lot lower than it needs to be," says Clarke.

Although he does not believe that most teachers are scared of computers - most realise the importance of ICT - even those who use machines at home may not feel confident about doing the same while controlling a class.

What is also patchy is the provision of equipment, Clarke says: "A lot is out of date, much of it is underused and is not integrated into the teaching process at all." However, he does not believe that simply installing new machines will bring any benefit - unless teachers feel confident about using them.

Technology's role in the learning process is another issue concerning Clarke. He sees the three broad options as using an electronic whiteboard for whole-class teaching, giving every student a computer that displays what the teacher has on his or her screen, or allowing students to work independently on their terminals. "I think the answer probably is a bit of each of those in different circumstances," he says.

According to Clarke, the absence of a pedagogical consensus about the use of ICT in teaching has caused confusion about how teachers should be trained and what hardware should be bought. He hopes to resolve these issues as quickly as possible. It is also on his agenda to ensure that the national curriculum review results in ICT becoming more integrated with other subjects rather than staying a standalone subject.

The Government's great hope for education, the National Grid for Learning, has been criticised for its lack of links with industry. "Not enough has been done yet," says Clarke. "We will not succeed unless we have the creative energy of the major hardware and software companies involved." No clues have yet been given about funding for the next phase, but an announcement should be made before Christmas.

The minister agrees that money is a prime concern for many schools that have to find the cash - not only to buy equipment, but to keep it running and pay for being online. However, he points to the ever-falling costs of hardware, adding that the Government is examining ways of "reducing the financial barriers to teachers and schools using IT" - but without elaborating further.

In view of this, he says that throwing vast amounts of public money at schools or giving every teacher a computer is not the answer. "It's a question of will, determination, interest, creativity, being prepared to look at ways in which we have traditionally done things and do them differently."

With both Prime Minister and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, taking a personal interest in the issue, Clarke is more than confident about the Government's commitment to ICT in education. Britain's teachers hope he is right.

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