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Tolls on the superhighway

Culture, commerce and even the curriculum could all change dramatically in a revolution which the Education Secretary herself has described as likely to be as great as those caused by "printing, the internal combustion engine and powered flight". She was of course talking about the information superhighway, the biggest development ever in global communications and one in which schools and colleges are being prevailed upon to take part.

In a crucial consultation exercise which will run until July, education and industry are being invited to respond to government questions (TES2, page 29) on what they might gain from the superhighway and to submit proposals for joint projects which the Department for Education might fund.

The 24-page document, Superhighways for Education, is a model of clarity which unravels with apparent ease the inextricable wires, cables and networks that make up the highway. Despite its rose-tinted view of the UK as admirably placed to participate in the revolution because of the deregulation of its telecommunications industry, and of UK schools as arbiters of their own spending, it offers an excellent analysis of what the superhighway actually is. Examples are given of how these may be used in different subjects - international video links for modern languages, archive video footage for history, high-definition images of works from galleries for art, and for special needs, staff development and administration. Anyone who has failed to be convinced of the rich resources on offer, should read this and have their appetite whetted.

But equally smooth is the way in which Superhighways for Education evades the issue of funding. Yes, schools and colleges hold their own purse-strings and yes, the DFE will support a number of pilot projects. But what then? There is nothing convincing here on why commercial companies with everything to gain from this new market, should work in the interests of an impoverished education system. Schools are rightly wary of open-ended costs for on-line services, and substantial investment will be required to ensure that they have sufficiently powerful computers, modems, internal networks and training. But the DFE is quite explicit that it will be up to schools to decide whether or not to go on-line.

Already there is the prospect of haves and have-nots - to be determined not just by funds, but by locality too. For while privatised telephone companies will happily run miles of fibre-optic cable through our cities, rural areas will have little commercial appeal and will have to look to satellite and radio. What does the Government propose to do about that?

Also, where is the evidence of a truly national strategy? All we have had so far have been ad hoc schemes from ministries which appear to be vying with each other. When Trade and Industry decided to connect English and Welsh secondary schools to the Internet, the DFE was apparently unaware of its plans. Then Welsh Secretary John Redwood jumped in with a pledge to connect all Welsh primaries. A sensible policy will need to pull together initiatives.

The DFE must be congratulated on its consultation and collaborative aims. America is well on the way to achieving the vice president's goal of connecting all the country's classrooms, libraries, hospitals and clinics by the year 2000, and Europe is working towards a competitive, Europe-wide market for information services. Now, at last, the UK Government has acknowledged the importance of the superhighway for our future culture. It will only be realised, however, if it is prepared to tackle the issues of commerce as well.

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