Literary slant on a man for the future

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
The Government's schemes for IT in education have been well documented, but what are the opposition parties planning? Jack Kenny talks to Labour's Chris Smith and Nigel Jones from the Liberal Democrats

We have to get people excited about the possibilities, about the new ways of learning, of working, of doing things. We have to talk about what is possible educationally, about kids who can reach out to rich national resources no matter where they are. We need to be aware of the need to train the professionals. The role of the teacher will be different. It will not be enough to say: 'Here is a textbook, read it.' It has to be something like: 'Here is a mass of information, now let me take you by the hand and show you how to use it.' The changed role of the teacher will be vitally important and we need to take account of that in teacher training courses, in continuing training. "

Chris Smith, Shadow Heritage Minister and Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, is acutely conscious of the paradox of the word "heritage" and the fact that Tony Blair has asked him to lead on information revolution issues. He dislikes the rear-view mirror aspect of "heritage", suspecting that it evokes pictures of out-of-work miners showing tourists round tarted-up, redundant pits. He argues that his work is about more than remembering the past and feels that it should be about identity and community, the things that draw us together, about communication.

Chris Smith's university focus was on 18th and early 19th-century poetry. Some will be alarmed by the idea of a literary mind developing policy in a highly technical area; others will be reassured. The debate up to the present time has been on who puts the cables into the ground and creates the infrastructure. He is much more interested in the debate about content, about what goes along the cables - the new ways of communicating.

Earlier this year he went on a fact-finding tour to the US to look at developments across the country. His strongest impression was the way that the Clinton administration, through Vice President Gore, was giving a real impetus to the information revolution. He was impressed by the number and the quality of the projects.

Chris Smith maintains that there are some very important lessons to be learnt there. He instances the Time Warner experiment in Orlando, Florida, where some households have been provided with the technology to receive video-on-demand (technology to bring video programs in to the home when the householder requests them). Time Warner found that demand has been less than they would have predicted.

Chris Smith contrasts this with the public service idea which has been put into practice in parts of Iowa where they have public access points so that people can link into their equivalent of County Hall. They can report road defects, get the agenda for the state legislature, find out about local education issues. The whole service has been very popular.

He feels that the assumptions that people made some time ago that the information revolution would be driven by video-on-demand could well be wrong, and that it will be public service and education that will be the guiding force.

He sees local government as a potent partner in the new information structures. "It is certain that we will be looking for a much better partnership between central and local government. We want to try to ease the financial problems of LEAs. The financial squeezes of recent years have been very severe. There are some simple things that we can do. Most of the best pilot projects with the use of new technology are happening under local government. There is a project in Newham which links central services. The technology there can be used to work with a multi-racial community with great sensitivity."

He is outspoken about the way that BT has been treated by the present Government. "I think that they are profoundly mistaken to have given the cable companies a head start. We think that it is ridiculous that the Government so organised things that Britain's major telecommunications company is prohibited from competing until well into the next century. There is no guarantee that the rule will be changed even then. We believe that there should be a clear timetable for BT and others to come into the market. We recognise that the cable companies have put a substantial investment in the infrastructure and should have a chance to obtain a return. We favour a rolling end to the monopoly that the cable companies have. BT seems to think that this is acceptable and so do the cable companies. Everyone does except the Government.

"Eventually we see BT and cable as fair competitors. A Labour government would say to BT: 'If we give you a firm date to start we want something in return. ' These networks must be developed in as widespread a manner as is practicable to cover the country. The important thing is that every part of the infrastructure must be able to talk to everything else. The coverage must be as near to nationwide as we can get."

Chris Smith smiles wryly at the recent superhighways consultation from the Department for Education, calling it belated but welcome and considerably better than the plan from the DTI to put Internet connections into secondary schools. He maintains that the puzzlement caused by the two initiatives is typical of a confused administration. He claims that the Labour Party forum on the superhighway, which will be bringing out a policy statement report in July, has aimed at inter-departmental coherence. Chris Smith chairs it, the DTI team is present and Ann Campbell represents education. "We are keeping it clear and the aim is to develop the policy thinking. We got some front bench people, some union people and outsiders with experience."

What are the key points of the Labour Party approach? First, Chris Smith argues, the Labour Party has put the information revolution issue at shadow cabinet level, in contrast to the Tories who have given it to Ian Taylor, a junior minister in the DTI. Second, he feels that only the Labour Party is exploring, through its forum, the potential of communications to revolutionise so many aspects of our life. Third, the Labour Party in government will insist that the network has nationwide coverage. Fourth, they will ensure that a link is put into every school, every library, every hospital and every GP's surgery so that the best possible social uses can be made.

Chris Smith's years of working with housing associations and serving on local councils give him a particular slant on the technology. He is concerned about the social issues and insistent that we should not underestimate the importance of public libraries. "What this technology does is to give us the opportunity to reinvent the public library, still as a repository of books, but now a source of learning for life from across the world. He feels that the recent report on the future of libraries makes grim reading. The report does not exclude the contracting-out of library services.

"We have to insist and be very strong in saying that the library service must be public and must be free. Book funds are being cut, opening times are being cut. As the new networks develop we have to make sure that they're available in the library. Not everyone will be able to afford links at home, but they should be able to get to the library. It is terribly important to balance access. "

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