ith a general election expected before the summer, Britain's main political parties are busily fine-tuning their policies in an attempt to maximise their voter appeal. Although elections are contested on a plethora of issues, the economy, taxation, health and education are often the prime concerns for many people.
Voters will have differing views on the most pressing questions within each of these areas, and education is no exception. However, whether it is pupil achievement, teacher training or cutting teacher workloads, technology has the potential - even if it is not yet being fully exploited - to make a real difference in almost every area of the education system.
For this reason, TES Online examines the attitudes of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to information and communications technology (ICT) in schools.
The Liberal Democrats have made much of their commitment to education and have made a pledge to increase funding for books and equipment in schools, particularly for information and communications technology.
Richard Allan, the Lib Dems' IT spokesperson, says the party will increase spending on ICT for schools by between pound;100 and pound;200 million a year. He is critical of Labour's progress to date: "Even with all the initiatives the Government has put in, there are still severe structural weaknesses in terms of ICT in schools that will prevent us from moving forward. It's very patchy and things like support for ICT systems is very weak indeed."
In his view, the top priority is "taking the hassle" out of ICT for schools. The Lib Dems recommend the use of IT consortia to let schools secure Internet provision, computers and support in a more cost and time-effective manner. Brokers would help ICT co-ordinators and heads work out their schools' needs, which Mr Allan says would achieve greater consistency between schools and allow teachers to get on with teaching.
The Lib Dems surveyed 400 schools late last year and found that there are 56 primary pupils and 46 secondary students per Internet-connected computer, a situation Mr Allan describes as "appalling". "While the Government is likely to connect all schools to the Internet, this will make no meaningful difference if there is only one connection per 50 pupils," he says.
The survey revealed that primary schools spend an average of pound;648 a year on the Net and secondaries pound;2,037. "Schools rate fast, cheap Internet access as one of their main priorities and mechanisms must be put in place to let them benefit from the full range of packages available," Mr Allan comments.
The party also would guarantee pupils at least one hour of Internet access a week.
Mr Allan highlights the continuing lack of imagination about what computers should be used for in schools. That is partly down to teacher training, another issue he says needs to be addressed. The New Opportunities Fund (NOF) programme is not properly tailored to the individual needs of teachers, making it irrelevant for many in his view.
The erosion of funding for local education authorities means some are missing out on a strategic vision for educational IT. Mr Allan says this is confirmed by the fact that in 1999 and 2000, 39 of the 67 authorities inspected by the Office for Standards in Education were found to have "serious weaknesses" in ICT support.
"Technology is going to have a huge impact on education and we've hardly seen any of that yet," he says. "If you're serious about education policy, it's got to be a key issue to address."
Like the Lib Dems, the Conservative Party education spokesperson Theresa May says that the servicing and replacement of computers is the prime cause of concern for schools. "It's a difficult issue that I don't have an instant answer to. Despite the National Grid for Learning money, that is a real question mark," she says.
The Tories have not finalised their education policy, but ICT in education did not rate a mention in Mrs May's October party conference speech. The party's main idea in education is devolving even more funding to schools and allowing them to decide individually how to spend it.
The Free Schools policy - a development of the Conservatives' grant maintained concept - also extends to technology. "We prefer to get money down to the schools to let them get on with the job in the way they want to do it," Mrs May said.
She does not favour a more centralised network to link schools to the Internet, insisting that each one needs the flexibility to decide how best to do this. According to Mrs May, government policy has meant that "the best decisions have not always been taken about what is right for particular schools and which ones should benefit".
Like her Lib Dem counterpart, she is also critical of the NOF training and says many teachers need basic IT skills before they can learn how to use computers in the classroom.
However, Mrs May does not support the Lib Dem proposals about minimum levels of Internet use for students. "It's important that young people leaving schools have got technology skills, but you don't enable that to happen simply by saying that pupils will have so much time on the Internet each week," she says.
Even before coming to power, Labour recognised the importance of technology in education. In 1996 it commissioned the Stevenson report, upon which the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) was based.
No one can accuse the party of not giving priority to education, or technology within it. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been pumped into increasing the number of computers in every school, getting them connected to the Internet and training teachers. The British Educational Suppliers Association's annual ICT in schools survey indicates that by April there will be an average of 16.5 computers per primary (11 with Net access) and 123 per secondary (86 on the Net).
Department for Education and Employment figures indicate that spending on ICT for teaching and learning was pound;148 million in secondaries last year, up from pound;119 million in 1998, and pound;123 million in primaries, a rise in two years of pound;74 million.
As well as increasing the number of PCs in schools and getting pupils on the Net, the NGFL strategy aims to phase out paper-based communications between schools and the DFEE and make Britain a centre of excellence in digital learning.
Labour has even gone so far as to appoint Michael Wills as an education minister with specific responsibility for learning and technology - a world first.
Some of the many other initiatives include the University for Industry's Learndirect service that can be accessed on the Net or at hundreds of learning centres being set up around Britain. The centres are part of a multi-pronged attempt to curb the so-called "digital divide" between rich and poor. Other aspects include a scheme to provide recycled computers to poor families and wiring up some of the UK's most disadvantaged communities.
The Government has recognised the need for teachers to own computers so they can become confident at using them in the classroom. Its Computers for Teachers scheme and the NOF training have attracted criticism, but many teachers have welcomed them.
A new round of the computer subsidy scheme may be announced by Mr Wills at BETT 2001 and, being an election year, it could be more generous than the pound;500 rebate claimed by some 27,000 teachers. Increased funding for the fourth and fifth years of the NGFL has already been announced and the Government is pressing ahead with trying to make Britain a world leader in technology in education. The drive comes down to the recognition that computers can help many pupils do better at school by making learning more interesting and stimulating, as well as making life easier for teachers and school managers.
Labour may not yet have got everything right when it comes to technology in education, but its achievements in the past three years cannot be denied.
Liberal Democrats www.libdems.org.uk