Susan Young reports as the path clears to the superhighway. 4Cut price, high-speed access to the Internet will be on offer to almost every school in Britain from September if British Telecom can meet new recommendations from its watchdog body.
It means BT will be able to compete with cable companies, which are offering free connection to state-of-the-art digital phone lines and a flat-rate yearly bill for Internet access. Don Cruickshank, the director-general of communications, said BT could provide schools with unlimited use of the special lines for as little as Pounds 600 a year.
Mr Cruickshank said: "I think the real challenge here is for teachers. It must be quite difficult to begin to think about how you are going to use modern information technology for teaching. Teaching computer literacy is almost vocational but actually using it in an English lesson or a science lesson - that's where the real challenge is. Making it available to schools for Pounds 600 a year is just a start, and good luck to them."
However, BT was not rushing to announce any new schools scheme. The company says matters are not straightforward, because despite the industry regulator's recommendations a complaint might still be made - and upheld - if it made a special deal for schools. Denise Hall, general manager for education business, said BT is working on a competitive package to appear in the spring, ready for schools to use in September.
The new recommendations partly complement the announcement made by Labour leader Tony Blair of an agreement by which BT would be allowed early competition with cable companies' entertainment services in return for connecting schools and other public buildings to the information superhighway. Mr Cruickshank himself was unclear on the status of that deal.
The new recommendations are the result of a task force on schools, colleges, libraries and information technology set up by OFTEL, the telecommunications watchdog. Discussions are continuing on how the needs of colleges and libraries might best be met.
Mr Cruickshank said many schools were too worried about large and unpredictable telephone bills to make as much use of the Internet and other information technology opportunities as they might.
The cable companies, whose operating areas currently cover half of all schools and three-quarters of all pupils, have pre-empted the recommendations of the task force by announcing their own special deals.
This should spur BT to lower its own prices for schools to compete, which Mr Cruickshank believes it will do before too long. The company's operating conditions previously prevented it from treating schools as a special case, although it has just announced two new schemes which would help schools by allowing unlimited useage for a flat rate for either three or eight hours a day.
The recommendations from Mr Cruickshank would allow the company to roughly halve its charges for installing high-speed lines (Integrated Service Digital Network, or ISDN) which can be used by up to 50 computer terminals at once, and will be available from all but a very few telephone exchanges. This would also mean schools could allow pupils or other groups to log on to the Internet or use other remote services during the evenings for no extra charge, widening access.
Mr Cruickshank admits he has no power to force BT to accept his recommendations - but his report strongly urges schools, governors, parents and pupils to lobby hard for low-cost services. The task force will review the situation in the summer.
Mr Cruickshank, who comes from a family of teachers, said: "Many jobs in the next century are going to rely on these skills. We are ahead of the rest of the world here. I was in Japan in November and looked around some schools there. There's been a lot of talk in Japan, but very little access."
The picture drawn by the OFTEL task force largely confirms the fears of technology specialists that schools are either haves or have-nots. Around 85 per cent of secondary schools and five per cent of primary schools have access to the Internet, generally through a single computer using an ordinary telephone line. This means that access is slow, limited to single pupils or staff, with the worry of large and unpredictable telephone bills.
On average, primary schools spend between Pounds 2,500 and Pounds 5,150 a year and secondary schools between Pounds 17,000 and Pounds 19,350. It is estimated that around two per cent of information technology budgets in primary schools and five per cent in secondaries is spent on telecommunications and service provider charges - but they would need to spend more like 25 to 75 per cent to use on-line services seriously.