A tale of a PM and his mouse

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Ian Taylor's children made him aware of the dizzyingeducation potential of the Net. He could see the leap required. but his boss, John Major, wasn't convinced. Dorothy Walker meets the former science minister who retains his enthusiasm

Having the initials ICT "was the clincher" says Ian Colin Taylor, explaining how he embarked on a career as the country's Minister for Science and Technology as the Internet age dawned in the mid-Nineties. The former City financier went on to blaze a pioneering trail, with initiatives that underlined the power of information and communications technology (ICT) and paved the way for much of the progress that is being made in schools today.

Not surprisingly, the man who launched projects such as Schools Online and the Information Society Initiative, was an early user of computers. So early, that in 1994 when Taylor took up his ministerial post at the Department of Trade and Industry, and wanted to employ email, he had to sign up with a commercial Internet service, as the DTI's computer experts said it would be a breach of security to install their own email network. But it was only that same year, says Taylor, that he discovered the real potential of ICT - and the revelation came to him at home, courtesy of his two sons.

The Taylor boys were already computer fans, but when 12-year-old Ralph forgot to bring home a schoolbook that was vital reading for a holiday essay, their home PC took on a whole new dimension. "The subject was history of art, and I remembered that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence had a website," their father explains. "We visited that site, found lots of cross-references to other information, and Ralph was able to write his essay. That showed the power of knowledge at our fingertips - far beyond the knowledge usually available to schoolchildren. It was then that I realised the implications of connectivity, and the opportunities offered by being able to get online."

Three weeks after he arrived at the DTI, a pamphlet landed on Taylor's desk, headlined "We Must Promote ICT". "I thought: 'That's terrific!', people already want to promote me," he says. "But of course it was all about how we tackled the problem of ICT."

He began tackling the problem with an "IT for All" campaign designed to tell everyone of the benefits of going online. He was also determined to focus on education. A visit to the annual BETT educational technology show convinced him of the enormous potential for bringing scientific subjects to life, with the aid of everything from 3D engineering drawings to rapidly developing multimedia.

For a science minister faced with a steady decline in the number of students "whose imaginations were gripped by sciences and maths." it was an important discovery. And Taylor noticed something even more revealing. "All the 11-year-old children at the exhibition could show me how to design a Web page, whereas their teachers couldn't," he says. "I realised that to prevent a crisis of confidence in schools we had to educate the teachers, not only about how to use the Internet, but about the whole new concept of being onine."

The Schools Online Project, which Taylor championed, was, he says, largely aimed at teachers. "These were pioneering days. More and more information was coming in, and you could spend all your time in the classroom trying to find what was relevant. We needed to make the Internet useable by schools, and with Schools Online, Professor Stephen Heppell (the creative mind behind the scheme) accelerated everyone's understanding of dynamic online projects."

First-hand proof of just how successfully the Net could be used came in 1996, when Taylor was invited to a school in Colchester to see BT's CampusWorld service in action. There had been problems and poor attendance, but standards at the school had now risen sharply: "The only problem was that parents were complaining that their children were repeatedly being punished by being kept late at school. In fact the pupils were volunteering to stay behind to work on the computers."

The 1997 general election put paid to his career at the DTI, but today, as Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, and with directorships in several science and technology companies, Taylor is still an enthusiastic proponent of ICT and an authoritative voice in House of Commons debates. He is a member of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. Asked about the present government's approach, he says: "My overall comment is favourable. Their National Grid for Learning has many strengths, and to be honest, given more time I'd like to have done it myself.

"But the Government's rhetoric is running ahead of its implementation. So far it wins low marks for its drive and determination to push things through."

But he gives one other piece of credit to the Government: "Tony Blair seems to take a genuine interest in technology, whereas I couldn't get John Major to be serious. It was very hard work - he wasn't happy with it."

Taylor adds to the numerous anecdotes in John Major's memoirs with an abiding memory of his own. "We persuaded John Major to come to the launch of IT for All on the basis that he would not be photographed using any of the equipment. The press sat him down in front of the screen, and urged him to surf the Net, but he said: 'That is what I have got a Minister for Science and Technology for.' So I knelt on the floor and used the mouse and keyboard, and John Major looked at the screen. The official photograph showed only John Major looking at the screen.

"But these were early days, and John Major was by no means the only minister who thought ICT was a load of nonsense, and that it wasn't as revolutionary as people were trying to have us believe."

The revolution, predicts Taylor, will bring a "seismic shift" in schools. "What many teachers are only beginning to fully appreciate, but many children do understand - even if they don't articulate it - is that in future, it won't be how much you know that's important, but your ability to analyse vast amounts of data, and decide what to do with it. The winners will be those who can make that judgement."

Ian Taylor's website www.political.co.ukiantaylor


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