From this month, information technology becomes one of the five primary subjects to be graded by Office for Standards in Education inspectors, giving it more significance than it may have had previously.
Just what will inspectors make of the way IT is being taught in primary schools? It is an interesting question, because the state of IT in primaries is something akin to a patchwork quilt.
The national curriculum for Key Stage 1 says that: "Pupils should be taught to use IT equipment and software confidently and purposefully to communicate and handle information, and to support their problem solving, recording and expressive work." Key Stage 2 expects pupils, among other things, to extend the range of IT tools they use and become discerning in the use of IT.
However, pupils in some schools will not be able to gain such skills and knowledge because provision of computer equipment can vary wildly, even in the same local education authority.
The British Educational Suppliers Association's 1998 Schools Survey says that spending on IT varies markedly: "This is particularly the case for primary schools, where some are making significant investments while others have been doing little towards new technology provision."
Another survey, of 111 primary schools in the Bristol area, found that more than 75 per cent felt they lacked the computer equipment and programs to fully deliver the IT curriculum. Although there were 1,202 computers for the 20,004 pupils, only 353 were fast, new models - one for every 56 children. Of these, only 114 had access to the Internet and just 14 schools said pupils used e-mail.
The optional exemplar scheme of work for IT in Key Stages 1 and 2, issued in July, says that regular access to computers with printers is necessary, as is access to scanners and other equipment. A range of programs is also needed, and access to the Internet for e-mail and the World Wide Web is desirable. If a school does not have this equipment, pupils will miss out on becoming IT proficient.
The Government is aware of the importance of IT. Earlier this year it allocated Pounds 100 million to help education authorities buy equipment to get schools connected to the National Grid for Learning (which provides a computer infrastructure for schools and learning materials on the Internet). While some authorities are planning to use the funding to give some help to all their schools, others are choosing to concentrate resources on a few.
Even if the Government is successful in connecting every school to the Internet by 2002, some pupils will still miss out. An estimated 38 per cent of the population has a home computer, but the 1996 Government report that shaped the National Grid for Learning declared that "access for the substantial minority of children, who, by the year 2000 will not have home computers, is crucial".
Many primary teachers are very worried about IT. It is no surprise that fears abound when many teachers are not familiar with IT and many schools do not have enough equipment. More than Pounds 230 million in National Lottery money is being used to familiarise teachers with IT, but this process will take a long time.
More funding for the NGfL should be announced later this year, but compared with secondary schools, primaries will remain disadvantaged as IT co-ordinators are overstretched.
Meanwhile, the distribution of IT provision is widening the social divide. A University of North London research paper says primary schools in poorer areas have 21 pupils per computer, while the ratio is 17 in most wealthy areas. Most computers in poorer areas are more than five years old.