New research suggests that the use of computers has a limited impact on pupils' achievement. Jon Slater reports
From the moment Tony Blair stood up at his 1995 party conference and promised a laptop for every child, computers have been at the heart of Labour's education policy.
The Prime Minister's belief in the power of computers to push up school standards is reminiscent of his 1960s counterpart Harold Wilson's belief that the "white heat of technology" would drive the economy.
From "personalised learning" to the university for industry, from preparing pupils for the 21st century to preserving Latin as a school language, information and communications technology has been given a central role.
But the extent of its influence on Labour's education vision is often overlooked.
Shortly after Labour's first election victory, Margaret Hodge, now children's minister, suggested that ICT could play a pivotal role in revolutionising the way schools are organised.
Teaching assistants could be used to support children who would progress at their own pace using computer software. Large numbers of qualified teachers could be replaced by fewer "super-teachers".
Mrs Hodge was rebuked by the party hierarchy, and her ideas seemingly left to gather dust.
Fast-forward seven years and we have a Government which has agreed a deal to remodel the school workforce, allowing teaching assistants to take whole classes, and which is strongly promoting the idea of ICT-based personalised learning.
It seems Mrs Hodge's rebuke was earned less for contradicting government thinking and more for letting the cat out of the bag.
Yet that rebuke was understandable. More than two years after it was agreed, the workforce deal remains controversial among school staff, who continue to argue about whether it is affordable or will inevitably lead to a loss of teachers' jobs.
But there is another, more unexpected, cloud on the horizon of the Government's vision.
The assumption that ever- greater use of ICT in schools boosts standards has been challenged by research published by the Royal Economic Society.
Its report, Computers and Student Learning, said: "Computers in the classroom have no discernible positive effect on children's educational performance while computers at home could actually be detrimental.
"It appears that computers at home are not exactly used for running educational software, mining the internet for useful data or composing better homework assignments, all things that would have a positive impact on performance, but rather for playing games, chatting and otherwise providing entertainment."
Children's fondness for games over homework will not surprise parents and teachers, although perhaps it explains why we are still waiting for Mr Blair to fulfil his promise of access to a laptop for every pupil.
But what about ICT in schools? Surely the latest computer suites amount to more than a herd of educational white elephants?
This Government has poured billions of pounds into providing ICT equipment for schools.
Labour came to power promising every school access to the "information super-highway", and now 90 per cent of secondaries have high-speed broadband internet access.
In 1998, there were 17.6 primary pupils to every computer; last year there were 7.5. During the same period, the figure for secondaries has fallen from 8.7 pupils per computer to 4.9.
Secondaries now spend pound;91 per pupil, per year on ICT, and the Government has promised another pound;1.7 billion by 2008. But critics believe this money would be better spent on extra teachers or traditional resources.
Last September, a report from the pressure group Alliance for Childhood warned: "The rush to fill classrooms with computers and internet connections has been partly supported by claims that computers give children more control and power over their own learning.
"But more than 30 years of studies show that computers do not necessarily improve education, that they quickly become obsolete, and that their high cost can mean less money for proven educational reforms - including smaller class size and integrating the arts in academic classes."
In the past, ministers have dismissed such concerns as the fears of Luddites who do not understand what is needed to equip young people for the 21st century.
Modern employers require ICT skills, and research shows that computers in schools boost pupils' motivation and attainment, they said. Certainly, the computer boom has made a real difference to school life.
A National Union of Teachers spokeswoman said: "I find it a very strange tale that computers are damaging children's education. Interactive whiteboards are proving to have enormous benefits - kids love them and teachers find them tremendous."
Computers allow pupils geography pupils, for example, to access the Met office website and gather information first-hand, she added.
The Government's own review of research, carried out in 2003, found that "the weight of evidence suggests clearly that ICT provision and pupil ICT use do in fact impact positively on pupil attainment and on school standards".
That review drew heavily on the findings of the schools technology agency Becta's Impact2 study. This was the first large-scale research to look at ICT's effect on pupils' national test scores, and it found a small positive relationship between results and ICT in almost all subjects.
Yet only in key stage 2 English, science at KS3-4 and design and technology at KS4 was the effect statistically significant. Crucially, it found that "no consistent relationship between the average amount of ICT use reported and its apparent effectiveness in raising standards". It is how, rather than how much, ICT is used that is important.
Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham university's centre for education and employment research said: "It is easy to confuse means and ends. Computers can become an end in themselves. Maybe the Government has got a bit carried away in wanting children to have the best. It is easy to forget that learning goes on in children's heads."
Unlike many other studies that purport to show the positive effect of ICT, both Impact2 and the Royal Economic Society study took family background into account.
The latter study, written by Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann, educational experts from Germany's Ifo institute, re-examined data from a previous study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
When family background was taken into account, what seemed to be a positive relationship between school ICT use and pupil performance became more ambiguous. Both low and frequent computer use were associated with poor test results, while moderate ICT users out-performed both.
The report said: "This finding appears to point to displacement of more effective teaching methods by time spent in front of the computer screen, or even to diversion of funds that might have been better allocated to instructional material or improving teacher training."
It is a sobering message for ICT evangelists in Whitehall and staff rooms across the country. Yes, computers have their uses, but they are subject to diminishing returns if overused.
As Professor Smithers puts it: "ICT offers many benefits - for instance, pupils can learn from experts in universities without leaving their school.
But learners need to be able to explore what they have learnt with an expert on a personal basis."
In other words, ICT is a useful teaching tool. But whatever some of the more radical elements of new Labour may think, it is no substitute for teachers.