Only connect

10th October 1997 at 01:00
We cannot equip our children for the world of tomorrow with the skills of yesterday," said the Prime Minister this week, introducing the Government's "National Grid for Learning" plans.

This ambitious enterprise will link every school and college in the country to an Internet-based computer network within five years - a project which Education Secretary David Blunkett promised will "create the connected society".

But behind all the phrase-making, what will this grid serve up to schools? First, it will put in place the infrastructure - the digital plumbing - that will allow the exchange of almost limitless amounts of information between schools, museums, libraries, local authorities, the DFEE, curriculum and inspection agencies, and anyone interested in education.

This will mean, for example, that teachers could access a wealth of curriculum material; the DFEE could quickly, simply and simultaneously communicate with every school in the country; local authorities could provide direct support for teachers; even parents (when suitably wired-up) could find out about what was happening in their children's schools.

The details of what information will be carried remain unclear - partly because the consultation process for choosing the content has only just begun, and also much will depend on how teachers decide to use the system. But as well as teaching materials and support for the curriculum, it's more than possible that the network will have a big impact on administration.

The setting of such a tight timetable for the National Grid for Learning reflects the dual importance placed on the project by the Government - both as a distinctive element of its drive to raise education standards, and as part of Tony Blair's much-repeated conviction that information technology will be vital to the success of national economies of the next century.

In opposition, the Labour Party made much of the significance of the information superhighway - using language that stirred echoes of Wilson's white heat of technology and Kennedy's new frontiers. The party's adoption of information technology as a key motif fits neatly with its shift in image away from cloth caps and failing, smokestack industries to the sharp suits and laptops of New Labour.

But to its credit, the party in government has made real headway in turning the rhetoric into reality. A series of announcements in recent weeks, culminating in the proposals for the National Grid, have tackled a number of key obstacles to schools getting started on the superhighway.

So far as cost is concerned, agreements with the telecommunications industry mean that the price of using the Internet for schools has been greatly reduced - both in terms of cutting phone bills, and in providing the high-speed "ISDN" Internet connections for faster access to the network.

In terms of equipment, the Government has announced Pounds 100 million for modern computers which can take advantage of the new learning grid. On training, the Government has said that lottery funds will be allocated to give teachers the necessary confidence in using the new system. Although less headline-grabbing, training will be an essential element in any plans; the grid will only be as good as the teachers who use it.

It was also fitting that on the day of the project's announcement Bill Gates, boss of the Microsoft corporation, should appear on the steps of Number 10, offering his endorsement. Mr Gates, the first great tycoon of the information age, is the living example of how Tony Blair believes the economies of the future will develop. When Labour last won an election, Microsoft didn't even exist. Now it's among the largest corporations in the world.

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