Quenching a thirst for information;Briefing

15th May 1998 at 01:00

Two European countries have launched schemes to ensure all school-leavers are computer literate. Brendan O'Malley reports

All secondary schools will be linked to the Internet by September and all primaries by 2001-2 under Hungary's ambitious plans to ensure all school-leavers are technologically literate.

Despite its modest economy, Hungary is putting 1 per cent of all primary and secondary education spending into creating a national learning grid, making it a higher priority than in other more advanced European countries.

Balint Magyar, minister of culture and education and a leader in the outgoing socialist-liberal government, explained that 10 years ago Hungarians lived in a communist regime that had a paranoiac aversion to the free flow of information.

"You couldn't use the Xerox machine at the university without showing your material to a supervisor. They used hundreds of policemen just to find out where our stencil machines were. It's been a long trip from a soft dictatorship to a software society. But now we have swept these blocks away," he said.

Under the Sulinet (SchoolNet) programme, the government - which is up for re-election on May 24 - will give the 1,000 secondary and 4,000 primary schools unlimited free access to the Net. It will also spend pound;1.2 million a year on the IT development of the country's libraries. A new national electronic library and multimedia centre will open in the Buda Castle overlooking Budapest at the end of 2000.

By the summer the government will have provided 13,000 PCs to schools from Siemens, Tulip, ICL, Hewlett Packard, Packard Bell, IBM and Apple. Other machines are being provided by local government. In every secondary school small Internet laboratories are being established with 4 to 16 machines in each.

By the end of this year 20 per cent of primary schoolchildren will have access to the Internet. Books, software, CD-Roms and IT equipment are being given to school libraries at a cost of pound;7 per pupil.

But the most critical element, Mr Magyar said, is the training of teachers, most of whom are "electronically illiterate". Since September, pound;62 per teacher has been made available for taking part in any of 5,000 training programmes for any subject at universities, colleges and with private firms.

By this September the options will include courses at 50 new "infomatic" laboratories dedicated to teacher retraining, each with 20 to 25 PCs, around the country.

In addition, the government is giving 1,000 teachers a year the chance to buy a PC at half-price and pay back the balance over two years. Teachers chosen will be those who show an active interest in using infomatics in lessons.

A raft of programmes has been set up to develop new educational materials for the Internet and CD-Roms, including a competition for pupils to create resources for physics and virtual chemistry laboratories.

Mr Magyar said that Hungary was poor by European standards and the spread of PCs in households lagged far behind other countries. This risked creating a new social inequality.

"We realised that at the turn of the next century a school-leaver without knowledge of using computers will be a functional illiterate and, if we wanted to turn this around, we had to launch an aggressive centralised programme, giving access to everybody," he said. "Instead of creating social inequality, we will use it as a tool to diminish social inequalities."

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