Computers could be used as a magnet to attract truants back to the classroom, says Labour's education spokesman David Blunkett.
"Through technology we can help to engage the interests of those who would otherwise be alienated from education," he told the British Educational Technology and Training Show in London. "We can use computers to re-engage disaffected pupils, bring them back into the classroom and help combat truancy. Using computers has status within youth culture, where books too often have not, " he said.
Yet Mr Blunkett, giving The TES keynote speech of the conference, warned that the new technology could also exacerbate the divide between the haves and have-nots. Semi-skilled and unskilled workers were much less likely to have information technology skills than professionals and managers, and people living in the South were more computer-literate than Northerners. Just 19 per cent of people over 65 described themselves as knowledgeable about IT compared to 73 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds.
But properly employed, information technology could help to overcome these differences. "I want to stress the importance of reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots in access to, use of and knowledge about the new technologies - the divide which sees some playing games while others are developing skills that will equip them for the 21st century."
He called on computer software manufacturers to develop more educational packages for games consoles and turn them into PCs.
Mr Blunkett reiterated Labour's pledge to give every child access to a computer terminal and to link every school to the Internet and proposed the setting up of computer libraries to increase access. But he warned against inappropriate use of computers. "Technology must not be a gimmick, it must not be a toy, it must be an essential part of the teaching process."
After Mr Blunkett's speech he was linked to Featherstone School in Wakefield for a short conversation using video-conferenci ng technology with Year 10 pupils. Mr Blunkett has already visited the school, which has wide access to advanced technology.
The Private Finance Initiative and national lottery money could be used to help schools buy computer equipment under plans outlined by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.
Opening the conference, she said the PFI could be used to enable schools to get the best possible value for money from IT spending, currently running at #163;200 million a year. "We shall challenge industry to come forward with proposals making creative use of the principles of the Private Finance Initiative to offer arrangements for bulk discounts, " she said. The National Educational Multimedia Offer Scheme will be launched in the summer along with a second phase of the government's superhighway initiative pilot projects.
An estimated annual investment of #163;300m of National Lottery money will also go towards a new Information and Communication Technology Fund available from 2001 to provide more new technologies in schools, libraries,training programmes and the voluntary sector.
"What are we aiming for?" she asked. "To paraphrase the title of a well known film is all this just 2001 a cyberspace odyssey? I believe not. We are certainly not embarked on an exercise in science fiction. The efforts of many of you here today have already begun to make the vision a reality. "
Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, said he was enthusiastic about IT in education but it should be explored with caution. "Some of us may be rushing off in directions that are far from clear for reasons that are less than lucid," he said.
More research on how electronic media affects learning was needed and traditional methods should not be discounted, bearing in mind that countries higher in the comparative league tables relied more heavily on textbooks. The printed word was a central and unifying factor in our culture. What was needed was targeted use of IT, particularly in primary education where it improved basic numeracy skills.
The use of computer networks to set up "virtual communities" and connect schools in rural settings or bring together students of minority subjects in different places was valuable but not a "panacea for all the problems of pedagogy which other methods have failed to crack."
"Our big problem in this country, and thus in our schools, is to create real communities," he said. "When people get more interested in communicating with others via the Internet than in doing things in their local community and interacting with people they can actually see, I am reminded of Charles Dickens's Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, who was so concerned about the brotherhood of humanity that she failed to notice her own children falling downstairs or the squalor in which they lived. "
l Cheaper Internet access is now possible. The cable TV industry is offering schools unlimited access for as little as #163;1 per pupil per year. On-line connection will cost #163;100 a year for schools with up to 250 pupils, and #163;251 a year for those with 251-500. Larger schools will pay no more than #163;500.