A revolutionary blueprint for education could make Australia's island state an IT showcase. Mike Matson reports
A computer for every five students from Year 1 to Year 12 (plus the software to go with them) and a laptop for every full-time teacher. A pledge by Blunkett and Blair? No, it's part of the Tasmanian Government's Directions for Education blueprint.
Separated from the rest of Australia by an hour's flight across the Bass Strait (or a 14-hour sea crossing), Tasmania is somewhat isolated. The island's communities are isolated too - Australia's most southern state is the size of Ireland with a population equal to that of East Sussex (less than 500,000). Premier Tony Rundle says that, unless radical changes are made, "Tasmania will quietly stagnate into a forgotten backwater with an ageing population and our young people leaving to find work interstate."
In part, the proposed measures will not surprise British teachers: performance tables; schools to have greater control over their budgets; principals to be eligible for higher salaries if they exceed performance targets; more emphasis on the basics, with measuring, monitoring and reporting of performance. In technology, however, Tasmania is way ahead.
During the next three years and at a cost of A$25 million (pound;12.5 million) per year, 14,000 computers will provide each teacher with a laptop, and one computer for every five students. But they won't be put in computer laboratories. Instead, as has been the case in Tasmania since the early Eighties, the machines will be installed in classrooms so they can be used in all areas of the curriculum. And they will be connected to the Internet. (All secondary colleges - Years 11-12 - are already connected to the Net via high-capacity ISDN telephone lines). It is not only schools that will benefit. The aim is to "make Tasmania ademonstration site of how advanced telecommunications can transform a regional economy", and to create "a testing ground or a 'living laboratory' for new technologies and the uses to which they can be put", according to Tony Rundle. The State Library, for example (a division of the Department of Education, Community and Cultural Development), has Australia's only state-wide computerised library system. The public has free access to the Net through all city libraries - soon to be extended to all branches.
The State Government says it wants to make electronic communication an integral part of life - and it intends to lead by example. Government services will be delivered electronically (with financial incentives) so transactions like paying tax, renewing driving licences and arranging car registration will all be possible 24 hours a day, seven days a week from any computer.
Tony Rundle wants the Government to provide a one-stop shop: "The customer will simply deal with the Government...It will mean that the Government, not the customer, will sort out which agency is responsible for a particular licence or charge."
Tasmania was inspired by Canada's New Brunswick, where a partnership with Nortel, a global telecommunications company, is turning the province into one of the country's fastest-growing regions. New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna says the real benefit of IT is that it is applicable to everyone. "We have aggressively promoted the use of information technology in all areas of New Brunswick life. We have focused on providing greater access to computers and helping people become more comfortable with using the technology."
All classrooms in the province will have access to the Internet, 200 centres in rural areas will allow public access to the Net, and digitisation centres will provide training in multimedia skills for unemployed people. Furthermore, a computer purchase plan providing tax rebates has attracted 10,000 new Net users (out of a population of 720,000).
Talking about the Tasmanian initiatives, Ian Scott, the director responsible for co-ordinating their implementation, believes that the state could be a showcase for the introduction of applications using advanced telecommunications. "Tasmania must make a quantum change; incremental change will be too slow. The aggressive initiatives now being implemented are but the first of many."
The developments contrast markedly with the UK where 50 per cent of computers in primary schools are more than five years old and the Conservative Government has been committed to restricted spending.
Perhaps the Blair Government should heed Tony Rundle's words: "All around the world small economies are struggling to provide the wealth and jobs their people need. But there are lessons to be learned from what's happened elsewhere. The main lesson is that those places that adapt to change do well - and those that don't go backwards. As a state we must become more self-reliant and make our own future."
You can find out more about the initiatives in Tasmania and New Brunswick on the Web: Tasmania Directions Statement http:www.dpac.tas.gov.augovtdirectionsspeech Email enquiries to Ian Scott at email@example.com New Brunswick Premier's State of the Province speech http:www.gov.nb.capospeechsop.htm