Bid to bridge the digital divide

27th June 2008 at 01:00
One million poor pupils to receive free computers to let them access the internet

One million poor pupils to receive free computers to let them access the internet

The UK's one million poorest families will be given free computers to hook up to their children's schools, under a ministerial proposal.

The TES has learnt that the pound;250 million scheme is the preferred solution of the home access taskforce, which is chaired by Jim Knight, the schools minister.

Mr Knight is pushing for funds to ensure all seven million households with children are online and able to link up to school networks by 2013.

Families would be means-tested and the one million most deprived would be able to pick from a list of approved computers for under pound;250. The retailer would send the bill to the Government.

Meanwhile, the remaining six million households would be urged to buy a computer if they did not already have one.

A marketing campaign would be directed at parents, emphasising the educational importance of technology. The Next Generation Learning campaign would also encourage parents to lobby headteachers to set up effective school learning platforms for families to log on to.

Niel McLean, an executive director of Becta, the education technology agency spearheading the plan, said such links could save schools from sending letters home. "This is about parent power," he said.

Ministers regard home learning through the internet as key to improving opportunities for children from poor families.

Mr Knight said the technology was needed to close "unacceptable" social and academic divisions. "The taskforce has identified a clear case for government intervention to address the digital divide," he said.

The taskforce members, who delivered their report this week, were united on the learning benefits of the strategy and confident it would be approved by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, this autumn.

But two members - the National Governors' Association and RM, the biggest supplier of computers to England's schools - feared the plan would not give teachers enough support in using the technology.

"We are concerned this is about getting computers into the hands of kids without the support from the local authority to use them educationally," said Phil Hemmings, RM's corporate affairs director.

Taskforce members generally believed that families would value the technology and that the scheme would not lead to a sudden glut of discount laptops on eBay.

But their report also warns of the potential media reaction when a mother complains that her child has accessed inappropriate material.

Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, said money for computers was only one challenge for deprived children. Many homes did not have space to work, or the necessary phone line.

"The entire education system is poised to do so much more online, and it is a major sticking point if teachers can't use this technology to reach all their pupils," she said.

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