Network: Our schoolchildren are still waiting, Mr Blair

Derek Wyatt, left, takes the Government to task for failing properly to plan, fund and put into effect the National Grid for Learning
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The Independent Culture
Imagine my elation at being sent a paper by the Department for Education and Employment entitled Connecting the Learning Society (also referred to as National Grid for Learning: the Government's Consultation Paper) back in those heady days of October 1997. It asked for expressions of interest by December 1997.

I've learnt that government papers are just as interesting for what they leave out as for what they contain. This paper had an enormous black hole - no budgets attached and no strategy for implementation. I concluded that the civil servants and consultants who had put this together were hoping that the IT industry would come bearing gifts.

For my sins, I thought the document was back to front. I also thought that, if Tony Blair were convinced of the need to deliver 25 per cent of government electronically by 2002, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) would be dovetailing their plans with his. After all, as a government, we are also working on the Department of Social Service's smart card projects; we're over budget and woefully behind on the ICL Post Office Counters project; then there's the National Health Services operations booking system announced last week by Frank Dobson, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's intranet deal, and so on.

Only last week, the Contributions Agency said it had serious doubts about Andersen Consulting being able to deliver a fully functional National Insurance recording system; then, amusingly, the Cabinet Office paid a newly privatised computer centre pounds 39,000 in interest on money it later discovered was its own.

Governments have made too many mistakes in the purchase and implementation of computer hardware and software systems over the last 15 years, wasting billions of pounds in the process. You would think someone in government would begin to comprehend that a single co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office was required.

Before we can do any of these IT projects, we have to have a broadband strategy and structure in place and it has to be properly funded. We have none of these in situ, but another discussion paper is due shortly from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I visited Singapore One (at my own expense) two weeks ago. We cannot embrace the thinking behind their Intelligent City unless we establish the ground rules for broad-band. The National Grid for Learning (NGfL) wanted to go round this problem. It wanted to create a mosaic at a local level. Cities and counties would be linked first, and then these links would be drawn together into some kind of national framework.

I thought this plan rather odd. The Government owns the copyright to the National Curriculum. It owns the rights to the books published on it, the examinations that reflect it and any programming on television, radio, video and the Net. When the Open University's funding was agreed, the Government annexed pounds 3m from the licence fee to fund the programming budget. Currently, the BBC's education spend is pounds 60m a year, and its online budget is more than pounds 20m. It has arrogantly established its own learning channels instead of coming to the Government to create the NGfL. Amazingly, the DfEE, according to a document leaked to the Financial Times, is willing to pay an extra pounds 30m to set up its own learning channel to supplement the NGfL.

Before we build the NGfL (and the University for Industry and all our Lifelong Learning Initiatives), we need a national grid to be in place. Once this was agreed, we could borrow from the ITV system. That is, at the centre would be the strategists deciding on the NGfL's hardware and software. Tender documents would be established for the publishing, broadcasting (irrespective of platform) and examination contracts. These would have the potential to earn huge revenue.

In the regions based on the map of the Regional Development Authorities and the Welsh Assembly (Scotland and Northern Ireland follow different curricula), further tender documents would be prepared to licence not just the NGfL but also other electronic government services, which would thus be provided free or as-free to the Government.

If this model were unpalatable, then there is no reason why the BBC, Channel 4 and BSkyB with, say, a Yahoo! or a Dorling Kindersley, should not be brought together by the Government to provide the central services. This could be funded in just the same way as the Open University - from the licence fee.

All teachers want are the tools to help them improve the way in which they offer subjects to their pupils. This would in turn aid the drive to improve standards. Headteachers and governors do not want large Internet bills one year hence, when the initial "free" trial is over. Teachers should not have been issued with laptops; you cannot see the screens in a classroom and therefore they cannot be used as teaching aids, except by a small number of pupils.

Teachers complain to me that they are taught on Pentium PCs and then come back to school to their 386s. Has every local education authority undertaken an IT audit? If so, could these be published, so we know what the UK picture looks like?

As I said in the adjournment debate about libraries last week, there are schools that still qualify as "information poor" because of the lack of properly equipped and properly staffed school libraries. We need a strategy that makes libraries the centre of the Intelligent School for the 21st century. We have been waiting for the Government's intentions with respect to the NGfL for more than a year. I yearn for it.

The writer is Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and founder and co-chair of the All Party Internet Committee

Online objectives for our schools

Shelve any further NGfL initiatives until a broad-band strategy is in place.

Remove VAT from the purchase of all computers for educational purposes.

Agree a deal with BBC, C4 and BSkyB to create a NGfL television channel.

Start to put into place the national hardware and software centre on the ITV model at the British Library (space available) or at C4/BBC/BSkyB or at Oxford University.

Put a tender document out to create the regional hubs for the delivery of the NGfL, the University for Industry and the Lifelong Learning Initiatives.

Nominate schools (Intelligent Schools) with IT that are already centres of excellence, and charge them with training their colleagues and upgrading skills.

Agree to provide free Internet access to all our schools for the next five years.

Organise UK-wide computer holiday boot camps (as they do in Singapore and America) to improve the skills of our school communities.