All secondary schools in England and Wales are to be linked to the Internet, the global computer network, by the end of the year, under plans being drawn up by the Department of Trade and Industry.
The project, Schools Online, is expected to cost about Pounds 7.5 million and will be launched around June with a pilot of some 60 schools. The rest will follow throughout the year.
The Government has yet to release details of the programme, being put together by Tim Eggar, the trade and industry minister, because they are subject to budget approval.
But it is hoped that more than 20 information technology firms will participate, supporting schools with training and equipment.
Schools should also be able to draw on the experience of their local universities, which have been linked to the Internet for years, and whose staff may be used as mentors for teachers. Organisations such as the National Council for Educational Technology will be approached to act as consultants.
A conference of the pilot schools is scheduled to take place within the next month, once discussions have been held between them and the individual technology companies.
The business side of the project has been co-ordinated by Andrew Boswell, technical director of Berkshire-based ICL plc, who declined to comment on the initiative. It is understood he is heading a "task force" of interested companies.
A DTI spokesman said: "The information superhighway and its use in schools is something we have in mind. It is far too early to talk about specific projects or time scales." An official announcement is expected in April, however.
A spokesperson for NCET said: "NCET knows about the DTI's Schools Online paper, but we are not involved."
Several universities, meanwhile, have expressed an interest in the scheme, though none has yet been formally approached.
Birmingham and Loughborough universities said they would consider putting their prospectuses on the Internet to allow greater access to schools, while Wolverhampton University is submitting a bid for Pounds 10.5 million to the DTI under the European Regional Development Fund for a multi-media project involving schools and small firms.
Steve Molyneux, asymetrix professor of interactive multimedia communication at Wolverhampton, said: "We already have projects on-going using CD-Rom, but the Internet has enormous implications for everyone connected with education. "