16th January 1998 at 00:00
There can't be many of Tony's Blair's ministers who would happily admit to + having been an anarchist in their younger days, but Kim Howells, the minister + for lifelong learning, is one of them. Brought up in Aberdare, South Wales, he+ is the son of a communist lorry driver and a mother who described her politics+ as chapel. The Howells household was intensely political, and most of his + relatives were involved in politics."Aberdare was called 'the Athens of the + coalfield'," says Howells. "It was the centre of publishing and very radical + politics, and always had a flourishing cultural life. I can't think of a better+ place to have been brought up."After grammar school, he went to Hornsey + College of Art to study fine art,but he gave up painting ("bourgeois + individualism"). Instead, he got involved in a student occupation at Hornsey in+ 1968 - a cause clbre at the time - and left college without a degree.Back in + South Wales, he briefly worked in a steelworks before heading north to play + rugby league. It didn't work out, so he became a miner - at Thornhill Colliery + near Dewsbury. A former tutor at Hornsey, then working in Cambridge, suggested + he took a new degree being offered by the College of Advanced Technology, and + in 1975 Howells graduated in economics, history and English (and then did a PhD+ at Warwick). Howells became a researcher at the Miners' Library in South Wales+ and then for the National Union of Mineworkers in the early Eighties. Howells,+ like others, became disillusioned with the tactics of NUM leader, Arthur + Scargill, and his politics shifted to the centre where he and his good friend + Neil Kinnock, Labour's leader from 1983 to 1992, were among Labour's + "modernisers". Howells won the Pontypridd by-election in 1989, following the + death of Labour's Brynmor John. He jokes that he is an education minister + because: "Education Secretary David Blunkett was the only person I hadn't had a+ row with!" Howells is very enthusiastic about his role and the place of + information and communications technology (ICT) in education. He has met most + of the leading hardware and software companies, as well as ICT teacher + associations."I've gone out of my way to meet small companies and to try and + understand who are likely to be the innovators," he says. "I've picked up a + lot of noises from this sector. Small companies worry a great deal that we + shouldn't be in the pocket of big companies or indeed have our agenda driven by+ them." He says that the Government wants to do as much as possible to + encourage the British software industry to take advantage of the developing ICT+ market.These words will provide some comfort to those who were disturbed by + the high-profile meeting between the Prime Minister and Bill Gates (chairman of+ Microsoft) last autumn. Howells attended the meeting, along with the + Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the President of the Board of Trade, Margaret + Beckett, Chris Smith, the Culture Minister, and David Blunkett."The discussion + was really about several things," reveals Howells, "The first was that Bill + Gates was concerned about reducing the inequalities between the haves and the + have-nots when it comes to ICT. He was very interested in our work with + libraries and the likes of Tesco. I spent a long time after that meeting with + Bill Gates reassuring other companies that there were no favourites. There's no+ question of the Government jumping into bed with one company or consortium. My+ aim is to create as free a market as possible in terms of systems, software + and hardware."Gates also talked about the importance of teacher training and + the need to provide teachers with their own computers to build up confidence in+ ICT.While he's a great believer in this strategy, he admits that the + Department for Education and Employment has not even got around to discussing + with the Treasury the issue of tax breaks for teachers purchasing their own + computer.At the time of our interview, the DFEE's long-awaited consultati on + paper on the national grid for learning had just been published. Howells said + it was too early to gauge reaction to it, but the initial responses were + extremely positive. Asked how he sees the direction of ICT in education over + the next five years, Howells says that, in the initial stages, "ICT will be a + tool which will help underpin our efforts to drive up standards in basic skills+ like literacy and numeracy". In the longer term, ICT should help to forge + interactive relationships within schools, and between schools and other + institutions: "It's going to bring a whole new grammar to the language of + teaching. I'm convinced of that."Howells has also been determined that the role+ of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) should change. Owen + Lynch, the council's acting chief executive, has been conducting an audit of + the organisation's activities, as has Dennis Stevenson, the chairman of the + Pearson group and author of the report that laid the basis for the government's+ educational ICT policy."I want the NCET to focus on the task of driving the + agenda for the national grid for learning forward. They've been all over the + place and suffered from personality clashes, and this is probably because + ministers haven't been interested in them. We could have been getting + infinitely better value for money from the NCET, and it should have played a + much more constructive role. It hasn't, but it will from now on."Another + vision is to draw on the experience of sectors inside the DFEE and the private + sector to help headteachers and governors on issues such as technical advice + and buying equipment : "Schools are besieged by salesmen offering all kinds of + miracle deals and they have got to have a quick and reliable way of evaluating + what's on offer." Otherwise, of course, there could be anarchy.