Another bite at the computer cherry

28th November 1997 at 00:00
France. The Government hopes the millennium will also see the dawn of a new technology age in schools, reports Jane Marshall.

Computers first appeared in French schools 25 years ago, but it is only now that the government is taking serious measures to connect all schools with the new information and communication technologies.

Education ministers Claude Allgre and Segolene Royal last week presented an ambitious three-year plan "to bring French society into the 21st century". The aim is to give all pupils and students - be they in the nursery or at university - access to computers.

M All gre described a future of infants drawing pictures on computers, primary pupils using electronic mail and accessing the Worldwide Web and secondary schools tackling ever more advanced processes. Lycee and university students are to have personal electronic addresses.

M All gre's scheme draws largely on recent parliamentary reports, notably one by Senator Alain Gerard which concluded that massive investment was needed to equip schools with the new technologies.

French schools have, on average, 10 computers each compared with Britain's 31 and Germany's 21, according to the Gerard study.

Latest information shows that in 1995 there were 355,850 computers in secondary schools - on average one for every 15 secondary pupils. It is estimated that nearly 60 per cent of primary schools have at least one computer, but about half of these are more than 10 years old.

Teacher training is a top priority, not only in use of the technology, but also in the production of software. The plan allows for 100 new teaching posts in the teacher-training colleges, plus employment of 1,000 young PhDs, to ensure that 40,000 new teachers a year are computer literate. Thousands of classroom assistants will learn computer handling and maintenance.

The total budget for the three years is estimated at Fr15 billion (Pounds 1.5 billion), but the state, in the form of the education ministry, will not shoulder the full burden; local communities are expected to play a large part.

The ministry will contribute just over a Fr1bn a year and local authorities will provide the equipment - rented rather than bought, to avoid obsolescence.

A state support fund for poorer authorities is intended to ensure equality, and during the first year schools in the deprived educational priority zones and rural areas will take precedence.

Chief education officers have until February to draw up plans detailing their area's needs. Each school will nominate a teacher or librarian to be responsible for information technology.

Telecommunications firms have guaranteed low subscriptions for use of the networks; for example, France Telecom will offer schools special rates for access to Educnet, a new educational site, costing only Fr40 annually for each pupil.

Ministers are anxious to avoid the pitfalls that befell Informatique pour tous, the last major attempt to introduce computers into schools launched in 1985. This equipped schools with 120,000 computers at a cost of Fr2bn, but foundered because of software, maintenance and training problems.

A more successful earlier pilot scheme that started in 1972 culminated in Operation 10,000 Micros. This was on course to install terminals in all lycees by 1986, until it was abandoned by the socialist government that took power in 1981.

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