A National Consumer Council report published earlier this year expressed fears that young people from areas of social deprivation could be "disenfranchised" by a lack of access to the information revolution. The solution the council foresaw was a collaboration between the state and the cable companies which own the broadband fibre-optic technology driving this revolution, to ensure basic computer literacy.
A project got under way last month that could be a model for such collaboration. Cable company Telewest Communications has set up a service called E-cademy, allowing five Lothian schools to have access to the Internet at speeds up to 300 times faster than those possible on the current telephone network. This will allow every computer to have simultaneous access rather than the handful that can be coped with at the moment.
The schools - Broughton High School, Linlithgow Academy, Trinity Academy, Balerno High School and St Margaret's in Livingston - will be linked and able to share each other's resources as well as the information network provided by Edinburgh city council and JANET, the Joint Academic Network, through Edinburgh University.
All had developed some previous access to the Internet through their computer science departments, making them ideal participants. Through a "managed gateway" teachers at these schools will now be able to use the E-cademy home page as their starting point for accessing curricular materials rather than scouring the darkest recesses of the Internet. The home page will also provide a discussion forum for parents and teachers as well as information about the schools for the public.
Scott Morrison, the Telewest project manager, says: "We saw that there was a demand for a high-quality Internet link in schools. With the development of broadband modems plugged on to the end of a cable TV line, there was an enormous leap in speeds of access."
With the schools already using cable for phone calls and television, he maintains that it was a logical and simple progression to the provision of an Internet service.
One factor in the success of the project thus far has been the close links that Telewest has fostered with teachers and with SCET (the Scottish Council for Educational Technology), the upshot of which has been their direct input into the tailoring of the material available on-line. This has allowed the traditional Internet provision to develop a stage further by having a specific Curriculum On-Line service with its own software.
Adam Hardie is the Telewest sales manager who had initial contact with the schools involved. "We have five teachers of various degrees of knowledge working hand in hand with SCET to ensure that we have the right products and services. We got everybody round the table for a couple of workshops and we got people to tell us what they wanted," he says.
SCET has also developed the suite of software necessary for teachers to produce their own Web pages, and provided training for teachers. It was a role for which, business development manager Phil Strange says, SCET was ideally positioned.
"Telewest has the technology and the teachers have the curriculum material. We've got a foot in both camps and what we're providing is the glue to bring them together. We are taking teachers down the route of being able to develop their own Web pages. The idea is that teachers produce curricular material: we are just pointing them in the right direction. We can give training to teachers but we needed third party support."
Much of the educational material on the Internet has a strong north American emphasis, but by providing the means for teachers to produce their own material, it can be directly linked to the Scottish curriculum, thus enhancing the credibility of the Internet as a teaching tool.
Scott Morrison says: "People want things relevant to their lives and that makes them want to have content that is locally based. For instance, geography teachers in Scotland will be able to create Web sites for their pupils about rock formations in their own area, rather than relying on material produced by an American teacher.
Ann Cole, deputy head teacher at Linlithgow Academy, is enthusiastic about this ability for resources to go on-line. "It will allow teachers to share materials - for instance, other people's worksheets. Teachers are generally modest about the material they produce but if they produce something good, they can share it on the Internet."
She also hopes that the school will become closer to the community as the public accesses its resources and prospectus.
It all seems too good to be true but ultimately the sticky subject of hard cash comes into the frame. Here schools can benefit from Telewest's long-term marketing strategy of aiming to get as many people as possible familiar with Internet technology as a showcase for the wider cable service. E-cademy will be provided free of charge, but it is hoped that a package can be negotiated with councils to provide cable connections at a discounted rate. This would give any schools in the Telewest franchise area access to E-cademy.
Scott Morrison says: "Schools themselves are never going to have lots of money to throw around and we would not expect them to pay through the nose for this sort of service. But pupils have home lives and parents who might want to use our service."
* Conference: Scott Morrison will discuss E-cademy:electronic education for everyone, Wednesday 12.30pmAnn Cole of Linlithgow Academy will discuss Internet access in a large comprehensive school, Thurs 12.30pm