Britain leads Europe in providing computers for schools, and now Internet access is seen as the next quantum leap in learning. By Dorothy Walker
This year's party conferences laid great emphasis on technology in schools and getting schoolchildren on to the Internet. But Britain is already at the forefront of educational technology - as far ahead as the average US school and ahead of most of Europe. A recent report on the major industrial nations said: "UK schools lead the way in the use and provision of IT. Secondary school pupils have more access to computers than any other G7 nation."

And the more remote the school, the more likely it is to have numerous computers and high-speed access to the Net. Just as South Dakota is the most advanced American state, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are setting the pace for UK education.

Figures from last year's survey by the British Educational Suppliers' Association (Besa) showed that, on average, every computer in UK schools was being shared by 10 pupils, both primary and secondary. That is exactly the same figure as the US schools average published by Quality Education Data last June.

The computers aren't all new multimedia models, and many date back to the early Eighties. But as one teacher put it: "You don't always need multimedia. Even an ancient BBC Micro can be put to good use for data logging, word recognition and learning keyboard skills. The important thing is making the most of the technology."

Today's main priority is helping children to work with computers as a tool right across the curriculum. The children learn to present information in a variety of ways: to find, select, analyse and store information; to choose the right software for any job, and to use computers to control other devices. Aside from word processors, databases and spreadsheets, there is often a contrast between the software chosen by schools and that marketed to parents as educational. Andre Wagstaff, of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), says: "Some titles measure their success on how long a child is prepared to spend on them. You won't see too many of them in a classroom. Teachers will say that unless a child can achieve something of educational benefit within 15 to 20 minutes on the computer, they can't justify it."

The Besa survey showed that average annual spending on hardware in each secondary school was pounds 18,500 - that represents only a dozen extra multimedia machines for up to 1,000 pupils. But overstretched teachers and parents are increasingly using ingenuity and spare time in self-help projects to eke out the IT budget. Jumble sales that once raised funds for the gymnasium roof now provide CD-Roms, and thousands of pounds are spent at supermarkets to collect computer vouchers. But experts say that many thousands of slightly out-of-date machines, which could be an educational godsend, languish in corporate storerooms or end up on the scrapheap.

To fill the gaps, and help children whose families can't afford a computer, many schools are now buying less powerful sub-notebook machines that handle only word-processing and spreadsheets. For the price of one multimedia computer, says Wagstaff, a school can give a dozen pupils a sub-notebook for their homework. Various government-funded projects are delivering more power. Nearly pounds 4.5m is now being spent on portables for 1,200 teachers in 600 schools and training them to use the machines.

In the run-up to the general election, more money is being promised, particularly for Internet access. Half of all American schools have access to the Net. At the last estimate in 1995, the figure in the UK was only 12 per cent, although more and more schools are now taking the plunge, encouraged by online educational services such as BT Campus and RM Internet for Learning.

Just announced is Project Connect, a plan by more than 30 technology suppliers to help 300 schools get on to the Net within a year. Schools will be able to lease an out-of-the-box package including all the equipment and training they need, and will be encouraged to link whole networks of PCs.

As for the future, Wagstaff says: "We can see an increasing synthesis between having your own resources on your desk, and having huge resources on the network. There will be a time, within the next 10 years, when you won't know when something is coming from your own hard disk or from Australia."

This vision of the future is best seen in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where the the education authority has been quietly working for years to build a remarkable educational network. The concept was simple: if schools are too tiny or too remote to justify a full complement of teachers, or even classmates, technology can be used to bring them together. On the First Class network, using some of the most advanced digital telecommunications in Europe, pupils from all over the region take lessons, prepare for exams and talk to friends around the world. Adult part-time learners have also benefited.

And the ultimate dream is coming true. The region, which has spent a century campaigning for a university, has decided to use the network to link existing colleges, and grow one for itself. The planned University of the Highlands and Islands will offer its first distance-learning course, a BSc in Rural Development, to the world next yearn

NCET: 01203 416994 (http://ncet.csv.warwick.; University of the Highlands and Islands: 01463 244337, (