Race to connect the Grid

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Every Scottish school, college, university, public library and "as many community centres as possible" will be linked to the National Grid for Learning in four years' time if Government plans materialise.

As revealed in last week's TESS, #163;62 million is to be spent over three years connecting schools to the Internet in what could prove to be one of the most significant transformations of teaching and learning ever undertaken. Further education has already been allocated #163;29 million for "superhighways" expenditure over the three years, following the Treasury's comprehensive spending review.

The plans envisage not just the use by teachers and pupils of information and communications technology (ICT) in and out of school, but the replacement of paper-based communications from the Scottish Office and other bodies with largely electronic exchanges by 2002. All pupils, students and teachers are to have their own e-mail address.

The announcement was made last Friday by Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, in a live video link-up from Deans Community High in Livingston to the Prime Minister, who was visiting Scalpay School in the Western Isles.

Tony Blair commended the initiative for allowing young people in different parts of Scotland and beyond to communicate with each other.

Mrs Liddell said ICT must be the "great leveller", giving equality of access. "There is always the danger that, while new technology can overcome disadvantages, it can also create new disadvantages for those who do not have access to it outside school. We don't want young people excluded, either because they fear they don't have the IT skills or because they don't have access to IT at home."

The bulk of the cash, #163;59 million, has been earmarked for education authorities to spend on the hardware and services to create the Grid. The remainder is to go on promoting research into the effectiveness of ICT in teaching, publicising good practice and developing Scottish content.

The authorities face a frantic three years since only one in six schools has an Internet connection and an estimated 60 per cent of school computers are out of date. A strategy document published by the Scottish Office on its plans for the Grid says the Government aims to halve the ratio of pupils to modern computers by 2002.

There are currently 40,000 modern computers in Scottish schools (defined as less than four years old) for more than 750,000 pupils. The target is to move from 34 computers for every primary pupil to 15 over the three years, and from 0.8 modern computers per primary classroom to 1.8.

The secondary targets aim to have a modern computer for every five pupils instead of 12, and for every classroom to have 5.3 computers against 2. 2 now.

The Scottish Office's "superhighways task force" has identified 140 National Grid for Learning pilot schools, which are intended to provide feedback on developments and may become centres of expertise. Additional money amounting to #163;23 million, scaled back from the original #163;25 million, will come from the National Lottery to train Scottish teachers and librarians in ICT as part of a UK programme, using the Grid where possible.

The Government's strategy document says a national survey of teacher needs has been carried out which will "ensure the appropriateness of the training for teachers by developing and publishing ICT guidance for initial teacher education". This will also act as the basic standard for training existing staff.

Ministers will be holding consultations with the teacher education institutions before issuing guidance on how ICT should best be integrated into initial training and at what level. Changes would be introduced from the start of the 1999-2000 session It has emerged, however, that more than 11 per cent of Scottish schools (381) will not be within reach of a suitable exchange for ISDN 2, the high-powered telephone lines that will connect most schools to the Grid. The Government has pledged to explore alternative technologies and to improve the "standard of connectivity" as quickly as possible.

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