Chris Johnston meets Professor Henry Beker, the businessman who is using his influence to pursue an ambitious vision - a laptop for every schoolchild PROFESSOR Henry Beker readily admits that he is a rich man. And although money does not buy happiness, it does allow you to pursue your dreams. In Beker's case, wealth has allowed him to give up running Baltimore Technologies, one of the largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, to concentrate on an ambitious new project: laptops for all British schoolchildren.
However, achieving this goal, which complements The TES campaign for laptops for teachers, could make running one of the country's biggest firms seem simple.
There is no doubting Beker's vision. The 49-year-old son of Polish and Egyptian immigrants made his fortune by recognising the vital importance of encryption technology for computer networks in the 1980s. After a doctorate in pure maths at London University and a brief stint as an academic, he spent 11 years at Racal Electronics before setting up Zergo, which specialised in computer security, in 1988. It survived the recession and prospered before becoming Baltimore Technologies last year.
Beker believes that IT skills are as important as numeracy and literacy, which is why he has taken on such an ambitious task. "I would like to see every child leaving school not only literate and numerate but with IT skills. I believe the best way of achieving that is not by sharing computers and using them occasionally, in the same way as you don't do English or maths occasionally."
With a wireless network in every school, he says pupils could take their laptop from class to class and use it for all their work. "It doesn't replace other things, but enhances capabilities and possibilities." It is a grand vision, but Beker is confident that it is achievable despite the complexity of the task. The idea is that his National E-Learning Foundation, initially funded by government, will help schools, individually or in groups, to set up and run a local e-learning foundation. They will be supported by donations from local businesses and parental contributions of about pound;5 a week to help cover the cost of the laptops - something he believes most will be willing to hand over.
The venture is off to a good start with a pound;5 million grant from the Department for Education and Employment. Ministers support Beker's plan as they think it could help to break down the digital divide, because children will be able to take their computers home.
Beker hopes that corporate cash or equity will be forthcoming because it is in the interest
of industry to have a nation
of school-leavers with good computing skills.
Schools, he emphasises, must decide for themselves if they want to take part and how they go about it. They do not have to buy laptop computers with the advent of devices such as Palm Pilots(hand-held mini-computers) that are becoming more powerful and offering Internet access.
Although some schools may be harder to convince than
others, Beker says "most schools are very, very positive and want this to happen". His foundation is keen to ensure that a wide range of schools, and not just those in the "leafy suburbs", are among the first to come on board and Beker hopes that more government money will help. He has made a promising start as the first school to set up a local foundation is Bowbridge juniors in Nottinghamshire, where nearly half the 250 pupils get free school meals.
Beker's business success has been underpinned by his talent for and love of maths. "It's hard to explain the turn-on that comes with discovering a theorem - something that has been true forever but nobody actually knew it until this moment. The whole elegance and beauty of maths is just so exciting."
He highlighted the importance of maths by initiating the successful Maths@Work education campaign while he was president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications in 1998. It is difficult, he says, to know whether the poor image of maths is due to the subject itself, or the way it has been taught: "By relating maths more to the real world, it becomes more relevant and hopefully people feel more enriched by studying it. When it's taught esoterically, people do think it's irrelevant. But there is no doubt that some people do find maths quite hard and we have to find ways of overcoming that." Technology, Beker believes, can play a significant role in increasing numeracy as well as literacy.
As well as the new foundation, Beker maintains his academic links as visiting professor of IT at London University's Royal Holloway and Westfield colleges. And he still has some commercial irons in the fire as an investor in several embryonic technology firms.
His other, unexpected, private passion is a love of woodlands. Beker's financial success is allowing him to buy tracts of land he wants either to preserve or restore to their natural state, the first being 200 acres in Shropshire. Woodlands also give him the opportunity to study fungi - another hobby.
Beker's belief in his vision of the E-learning Foundation can only have been confirmed by the reaction of his 12-year-old daughter (he also has another who is 21) to the recent arrival of her own laptop: "She's having a whale of a time - it has really had a positive effect."
He wants the same opportunity to be made available to every British child and says the UK is well placed to achieve the goal.
"We are an amazing country with an awful lot going for us. We have a tremendous IT industry and a Government that is thinking about the future and IT - we should take advantage of that."
More information about the national E-Learning Foundation will be published in The TES in the new year.