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Bill Gates backs Blair's computer crusade

Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire head of Microsoft yesterday promised the Prime Minister advice and involvement but no money in the Government's crusade to connect every pupil to the Internet.

Tony Blair announced pounds 100m to update school computers and software as he launched the national grid for learning.

The aim is to connect all 32,000 British schools to the grid, which will be like a giant website, by 2002. At present only 6,000 have access to the Internet.

The grid will offer teachers lesson materials, advice on planning and educational software. Eventually, pupils may be able to access worldwide information for their history homework and to take part in science experiments involving space technology which would be impossible in the classroom.

However, Mr Gates (pictured above) denied that Microsoft's participation in the National Teaching Grid was aimed at inculcating a new generation of British computer users in his company's software. "People will make their buying decisions independent of what's there," he said before the lecture to Cambridge undergraduates.

"A particular word-processing package doesn't tell you what to write or how to write. There are authors who use word processors and there are authors who use pen and paper, and that's fine."

Ministers are currently examining ways in which schools will be able to prevent pupils using the new computers to look at unsuitable material such as pornography. Ways of blocking such material already exist, officials said.

Though private companies will supply software for the grid, the Government will ensure that the quality is controlled.

Mr Blair, who visited a computer class at Holland Park comprehensive school in west London, told pupils he had been talking to "the guy who runs Microsoft" and had discussed how all libraries could be wired to the Internet.

He said: "If we want the best educated and skilled workforce then we have to use the new technology ...

"We are engaged with a whole series of people. Not just people like Bill Gates but our own companies here in this country."

Teachers fear that more information technology will distract from literacy, and in Brighton the Princess Royal told the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of top public schools that there was more to education to computers. "Information technology is not the answer to education in the sense of people understanding basic skills."

Though computers allowed children to acquire unprecedented amounts of information, only teachers could turn that information into knowledge by showing its relevance to their lives.