IN THE days of the former Soviet Union there was always talk of five-year plans - huge, grandiose schemes designed to transform whatever they were focused on. According to Western media coverage, they were characterised by heartbreak, waste and corruption. So it was slightly ironic when New Labour, of all people, announced a five-year plan for the National Grid for Learning - Stalinist they are not.
It's highly unlikely that the learning grid will hit any Soviet-type problems however. The indications, roughly two years into the project, are that progress is good. According to the statistics 62 per cent of primaries and 93 per cent of secondaries are now connected to the Internet. What they don't tell us, however, is the proportion of connected schools that have Net access through their networks. It's the only meaningful way for schools to go - a single Internet machine in a school is hopelessly inadequate.
While the Government should be pleased with the progress (page 10), there are areas that need attention and support. The training programme is crucial. It is a massive, daunting project and those involved have to give a very clear message to teachers and schools that they can make their own choices. The anecdotal evidence available so far (page 37) is that those teachers who are aware of the scheme are under the impression they have to go along with local authority schemes, or that they should only use one training provider. They need to be told very clearly that it is their choice and they should find the training organisation, or mix of providers, they feel most comfortable with.
Another issue to watch is bandwidth - the capability of the connections being given to schools. There are fears that some installations have connections that are too slow, and that those schools might be travelling along a congested trunk road rather than an information superhighway. Because of the UK's history of monopoly and rip-off in the communications market, there needs to be constant political pressure to push down the costs of bandwidth.
The Government and its agencies are attempting an extremely difficult set of tasks. Technology is a volatile, fast-moving market. Just when you think you have a handle on it, new developments sweep in. So trying to create models for funding is important and ambitious. That is why the move to managed services - getting companies to manage the ICT to allow teachers to teach - is significant. The indications are that the Government wants to move from piecemeal funding based on projects, to continuous funding - schools and colleges need ICT infrastructure and equipment just like they need any other educational tools and services.
By the end of this five-year plan we should be concentrating on the really exciting part of the project - creating excellent content and services for education. Which brings me to Learnfree.
The National Grid for Learning will not just affect schools; it has the potential to transform the whole of the education community. Organisations serving education are already changing. Software companies like Granada Learning and REM, for example, are moving into e-commerce to sell their products - visit their websites and you can start shopping.
Media companies are now making serious investments in online services. The TES, which has had its own online edition since January 1997, is creating a major new free education service - Learnfree.co.uk. It can even provide you with a free Internet connection too.
The TES intends Learnfree.co.uk to be one of the key education websites for school and home - an important part of the emerging learning grid. The service was relaunched last month with masses of new content and valuable new materials and services are being commissioned daily. After years of carefully moving into the market, News International has given its titles the green light for substantial Internet developments. In the first instance this means that we can now provide a first-class service for teachers, students and parents, but the wider implications are for the sort of productive partnerships and collaborations that only good networking can produce.
Learnfree already contains a wealth of home learning materials and curriculum guides written by teachers and is setting up an area for professionals to exchange best practice in every area of school life. To contribute or get in touch, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org The message to readers, colleagues and friends who have wanted to collaborate with us in the past is: "Please get in touch."