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Scots in push for national network

New deputy minister for schools, Nicol Stephen, wants to put Scotland at forefront with technology, writes Gillian Macdonald.

IN TWO to three years every school in Scotland could be linked to a single Scottish network that would be the gateway to some exciting opportunities, said Nicol Stephen, Scotland's new deputy minister for schools.

Mr Stephen, who took over from Peter Peacock in the Scottish Executive reshuffle said: "Many think we might be looking at just rolling out ADSL (broadband over existing telephone lines) for our schools. There's been a lot in newspapers about its impact on business and homes - being able to pull down your video over your phone system, rather than going to your video shop. But we're actually looking at something significantly better than that."

The changes would put Scottish schools at the forefront of new technology, with a centrally managed broadband network linking schools, libraries and perhaps other partners.

Technically it would be centrally managed on behalf of schools, have a central hub, central security and a single, large link to the Internet. It would provide a range of services, from digital video, to all kinds of online facilities, and mirror the universities' SuperJanet network structure.

Consultants PriceWaterhouse Coopers have outlined the options being considered, such as working through individual local authorities or a "sub-hub" for four or five, or even giving direct connection to each school. But the economies from a single managed education intranet, on communication costs and telephony, would be huge.

Politically, the issue is sensitive for Scotland's 32 education authorities, raising alarm bells about education authorities being bypassed. "The only way we can do this - and afford to do it - would be by everyone working together," Mr Stephen said. "There would have to be involvement from the Scottish Executive; there would have to be support and buy-in from all the local authorities."

However, many Scottish authorities have already signed long-term partnerships with manufacturers, such as Mitel, to instal computer networks and managed services across their schools. These cntracts would need to be studied and measures considered so authorities could enter when they were ready.

"This is a big decision, not only for the Scottish Executive, but for the local authorities - for the whole of Scottish education," Mr Stephen said. "We've got to know there's support, commitment and enthusiasm, and excitement to go ahead with this."

Enthusiasm has not always been the trademark of teachers when it comes to computers. A report from Her Majecty's Inspectorate on ICT in Scottish schools last year revealed many were unwilling to embrace the pace of change. The inspectorate hopes in two or three years - by raising the profile of ICT in school inspections - to see the effects of financial investments. The minister and inspectors are aware of the need for funding and training.

Funding for the National Grid for Learning in Scotland looks set to be extended beyond 2002, for an extra two years, with substantial further investment coming from this year's Comprehensive Spending Review.

A "larger sum of money" will also be available centrally to address issues, such as broadband and an extension of NGFL Scotland, called the Hub. There will be programmes for teachers to develop their ICTskills once the New Opportunties Fund-backed training ends in 2003 and there will be incentives for teachers to buy their own computers.

Last year 5,000 teachers applied successfully for pound;200 grants via Learning and Teaching Scotland. This year more than 7,000 have applied - way beyond ministers' expections, but Mr Stephen said: "We intend to approve all of those applications. We're going to have to find ways of making that additional investment, but we're determined to do that."

The minister is preparing to put the broadband proposals out for consultation, to decide on a model that will work. This could take months and there may, he said, be local authorities who would see funding as a problem. But he is in no doubt about the sense of urgency: "We want to have a world-class ICT infrastructure in Scotland, benchmarking with the rest of Europe and North America. That's one of the challenges of the Scottish Parliament," Mr Nicol said.

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