Log on time for tots
Infants are the latest to get the computer treatment with the launch on Wednesday of a pound;3 million pre-school strategy - although curriculum advisers admit they are not sure if there are any advantages.
A review of the role of information and communications technology in the early years by Learning and Teaching Scotland notes: "There is a scarcity of good-quality research findings on using ICT in educational settings for young children and little evidence to support either the claims made for its benefits or the warnings about potential harm."
It warns that many questions "remain unanswered in relation to the benefits of the use of ICT by young children".
Ministers, however, are concerned that a gap is opening up between primary and nursery schools. Some 97 per cent of primary schools had access to the internet at the 2002 census, compared with 84 per cent the year before.
There is a ratio of one computer to nine primary pupils.
Euan Robson, Deputy Education Minister, who made the announcement, said: "Radical improvements are required to redress the imbalance between nursery and primary provision, and ensure we harness young children's natural enthusiasm and curiosity in relation to ICT."
The strategy faces a considerable challenge to equip staff with the skills to do the job. While the LT Scotland review reports that "there is an identified enthusiasm, interest and commitment among early years staff for using ICT", it also found that only 10 per cent have ICT expertise that could be described as either excellent or good - and the skills of half of pre-school staff are classed as basic or inadequate.
Although staff training is to be an integral part of the initiative, more than a third of those who responded to the LT Scotland consultation had not had any ICT training in the previous two years. Most who had were concerned with improving their basic skills or word-processing.
It also appears that pre-school staff will need a crash course on the educational uses of ICT. LT Scotland found that "there is a belief that young children learn computer skills almost automatically and with little effort". Observations of young children working with computers, however, demonstrate that their activities are not all supportive of their learning.
Mr Robson was at pains to stress that the initiative, which is being funded for two years, "is not designed to create a generation of hackers". The aim is to use a range of the most up-to-date resources to support learning among under-fives. It was meant to be enjoyable as well as constructive.
The new framework developed by LT Scotland can be downloaded from its website, www.LT Scotland.org.ukearlyyears. Mike Baughan, its chief executive, underlined the importance of "getting it right in the early years" so ICT becomes an integral part of learning later on.
The Scottish Executive stresses that ICT in the early years is not just about computers. Staff will be encouraged to use digital still and video cameras, video and DVD equipment, the internet, telephones and e-mail.
It added: "Staff will also promote interactivity, for example through programmable toys, musical keyboards, activity centres, interactive television and children's websites." This will place considerable demands on staff who, according to the review, barely go beyond the use of CD-Roms, record-keeping and assessment in their uses of ICT.
The training programme, to be run by LT Scotland, will be led by a core group of pre-school staff in every authority. They will form a support network for those who need it and the aim is that the entire workforce should receive ICT-related professional development. Support and guidance materials will also be available All authorities are to receive a share of the funds over the two years, ranging from pound;220,309 for Glasgow to pound;18,554 for Orkney.