Former education secretary Kenneth Baker did much to introduce computers to schools. Jack Kenny asks what he thinks now.
One of the most powerful recent influences on UK education in general, and information technology in education in particular, has been Kenneth Baker who, during Margaret Thatcher's years, was first Minister for Information Technology and then Secretary of State for Education. Mr Baker was the architect of the Computers in Schools strategy and was responsible for the Education Reform Bill, the legislation that has, he believes, changed schools irrevocably.
Politicians in the UK are not noted for their interest in and understanding of IT, especially in relation to education. Mr Baker's interest started in the early 1960s before he entered Parliament. He was in industry and saw that computers were going to go far beyond their use in stock control. One of his first posts in the Edward Heath government was to set up a computer agency. In 1981, during Mrs Thatcher's first term in office, he was made Minister for Information Technology.
"It wasn't a very political job but it was clear to me that we were at the very early dawn of a revolution and I was determined that schools should not be left out," he says. "Most schools at that time did not have one computer. There was a great deal of suspicion because teachers were not trained. I made schools an offer that they could not refuse: subsidised state funding to get the computers in.
"We also put advanced equipment into colleges. When I go into schools now, I see a lot of computers but not nearly enough. I would like to see many more in general classrooms and not just in computer rooms. I believe that being computer literate is as important as learning English. It is all part of living and working today."
Mr Baker announced recently he would not be seeking re-election when this Parliament is dissolved. His other work is advising ICL, Cable and Wireless, Videotron and New Media. What does he think when he looks at education today? "I am sorry that some of my vision has been watered down," he admits. "The current curriculum is a good curriculum. I still visit schools, particularly those (city technology colleges) that were my baby."
He denies the charge that CTCs received a disproportionate amount of funds. The purpose of CTCs, he claims, was to act as beacons of technology: to show what could be done, to be a stimulus for schools in the same area. He rejects the view that the experiment has failed. "Let us just say that some colleges have done less well than others. I always wanted industry to put money into education and I think that significant IT developments in future will require that kind of partnership.
"It does seem likely that Gillian Shephard will get extra money for education in the next round what else are leaks for? I hope that there will be an element of that for capital spending on information technology."
Mr Baker wants to see every post-16 student with a laptop computer, not just a palmtop. "The cost of one of those is half the price of one in the original computers-in-schools scheme," he points out. "People say that these computers will be lost or they will be sold. I imagine these were the arguments used when it was proposed to give children books.
"The state should provide some money for this. Of course it will be expensive but the overall benefit will be enormous. If we don't do this for the generality of children, the middle class will buy their children laptops and soon we will have a two-tier provision."
What would be his priorities if he was at the Department for Education and Employment? Mr Baker believes the emphasis has to be on software: "The educational software in this country is patchy: when it is good it is very good; when it is bad, it is horrid."
He reckons more money should be put into development. "Companies are struggling because the educational market in CD-Roms is pretty small," he says. "A good interactive CD-Rom will cost about Pounds 300,000 to create. In this country there are 4,000 secondary schools; 20,000 primary schools. That is a small market base. The large market base is the homes, the students. What we have to focus on is that CD-Rom is an individual way of learning. Software houses should be producing material for the home so that parents can buy packages that would assist with the revision for science or maths."
He is sure the market will develop: "We have to support companies until the market is strong."
Mr Baker is no fan of American educational software. He feels multimedia encyclopedias such as Encarta are relatively easy to produce and are ineffective learning tools. He argues that we should be aiming teaching materials at the world market, citing the English dominance of the textbook market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as evidence that it can be done. "We have the world's favourite airline and if we could gather together the skills of our English teachers on a series of CD-Roms we would have the world's favourite teachers."
He predicts that distance learning will be a key development over the next 10 years. "We've heard this many times but now I am sure that it is going to happen. Good material will supplement the teachers, not replace them by letting the pupils work at their own pace with software that interacts, tests, questions, stretches and clarifies."
Baker was responsible for competition policy in telecommunications and realises the importance of the information superhighway. He emphasises that it is going to be very costly: "At some stage the Government will have to put some money into it. ICL has a development in Bristol which I have seen. The cabling is not particularly difficult, it is what comes after that, the equipment that you put on to the end of the cable, more expensive and more complex equipment than we have now. BT and Mercury and the cable companies will do part of it but they can't do it all. It will require a vast capital sum in three or four years."
Does he regret his decision to leave Parliament? And what was his proudest moment? The urbane exterior give little away even though he probably has a better understanding of these key issues than anyone in the current Government. "The initiatives with technology, many of the things that I did as Education Secretary, some were controversial at the time but have now been widely accepted: curriculum testing, greater independence for schools, the involvement of governors and parents. I am particularly pleased with the work in information technology. In the final analysis, all a minister can do is to encourage the flow of the tide; you can't divert the stream."