As learning and technology minister, Michael Wills realises the importance of ICT to the future health of Britain as it bids to keep pace with a changing world. Chris Johnston reports.
Michael Wills is late and very apologetic as he ushers me into his office overlooking the airy atrium within the Department for Education and Employment's (DFEE) Sanctuary Buildings in Westminster. He's been caught up in House business.
Wills, 47, has had a few months to settle into his role as the DFEE's learning and technology minister since he was appointed on July 29, following Charles Clarke's move to the Home Office. Officially the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (he had the same title for six months at the Department of Trade and Industry), he is responsible for the department's policy on information and communications technology (ICT), particularly the National Grid for Learning and University for Industry.
Working across the DFEE, covering schools, lifelong learning and the employment service, Wills says that anything with an ICT dimension crosses his desk. When I point out that at the time of his appointment, some said he might be a part-time minister due to the brief's seemingly narrow range, he laughs. "It's not what I thought. Some people who thought that have not focused on the scale of the task and its importance."
Wills begins by rattling off what he and the Government regard as priorities, such as ensuring the "digital divide" does not widen and result in only the well-off benefiting from the information revolution. He says a number of different strategies are being used to stop this happening.
To prove that it is now vital for all students to be competent in ICT when they leave school, Wills points out that 60 per cent of new jobs in the US are expected to require advanced technology skills. Later, he reveals that statistic was gleaned from Vice-President Al Gore's website.
Wills says that about 90 per cent of jobs in Britain will soon have some sort of interaction with ICT and that we need a technology-literate workforce to compete on the world stage. "The development of creative interactive multimedia is going to be a huge global industry, and we have all the skills and talents in this country not just to be a world leader, but the world leader if we get it right. As a government we see this as a huge prize worth winning and our job is to make sure we are successful."
Yet as well as underpinning the UK's economic prosperity, Wills is adamant that ICT should be used to enrich the learning experience. "We know that these technologies can enhance learning - there is a lot of work that shows it motivates pupils and helps with discipline problems. That's why we're putting the money in." However, he stresses that the technology must help to raise standards across the board; otherwise the very significant funding will be wasted.
A lack of high-quality software is a problem ills highlights and says that the government is working closely with the industry to solve the problem, as well as setting aside 15 per cent of Grid funding for spending in this area. However, he does not entirely agree with comments David Puttnam made in a speech at the Association of Education Committees Trust summer conference, in which he said education authorities could help to drive up the quality and drive down the cost of software by pooling their resources. "We have to be careful to strike a balance between allowing schools to make their own purchasing decisions with the economies of scale. It's a difficult, but very important question."
The significant reductions in the number of pupils per computer and the rapid rise in the number of schools connected to the Internet are just two indications that the Grid strategy is progressing. On the issue of the cost of Internet access for schools, Wills says the rates negotiated by Oftel and BT have cut prices significantly, but concedes that more could be done to bring down the price barriers.
Although the Lottery-funded ICT teacher training programme is still in its early stages, Wills says the Government expects to see significant results from the pound;230 million invested. As the NGFL continues, he believes teachers who are uncertain of the merits of using ICT in the classroom will see the benefits. He does not, however, rise to the bait when asked if every teacher ought to have their own computer. Instead, he says that more machines are being put into classrooms and they can apply for the pound;200 subsidy to help buy one.
The other major element of his brief is the University for Industry, a key element in the Government's drive to promote lifelong learning. It will deliver courses through its network of learning centres called "learndirect". They will use technology to offer a different approach to learning, and aims to reach those who have been deterred in the past. Wills says: "We need to provide a rich ecology of provision so that however people want to learn there is a route that is suitable for them to do so." Asked what he sees as the priorities for the future, he returns to familiar themes: "We've got to make sure that schools are properly equipped and we're well on the way to doing that; we have to make sure that as far as possible a digital divide does not open up in this country; we have to make sure that ICT use in the classroom is fully integrated with the standards agenda so that we can use these new technologies to the full; and we have to make sure they are fully exploited to give everybody access to lifelong learning."
Wills has a difficult job; after all he is coping with an ever-changing playing field and trying to place Britain at the forefront of the cyber race. "As a government we've got to be proactive, as well as flexible and responsive and quick to respond to these challenges - change is constant at the moment."