Britain leads way in PC world

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Britain has the highest proportion of households with personal computers in the world, it was revealed yesterday, as Labour and the Government fought to champion the cause of computers in schools.

Nearly one in three British households now owns a personal computer with average usage running at 10 hours a week, according to a new report compiled from government figures. Almost 45 per cent of homes with schoolchildren own a personal computer, compared with 30 per cent in 1990.

Twenty one per cent of households own a computer in France, 20 per cent in Germany and 18 per cent in Ireland, while only 15 per cent of households own a computer in the US, the report for Olivetti Personal Computers reveals. Japan is "nowhere near the top ten of home computer owners" despite its high-tech image. "There is so little space in Japanese homes that workers would tend to stay late at the office rather than have a computer at home," said Don Philpott, who compiled the Olivetti market report.

The figures emerged as Tony Blair and Robin Squire, Under- Secretary of State for Education, competed to stamp their own signature on the high- tech future of Britain's schools. Speaking at the Curriculum 2000 conference at London's British Film Institute, both laid claim to the brightest vision of how to harness the possibilities of information technology.

Mr Blair pledged partnerships with business to revolutionise children's learning through computer technology. He announced an independent expert panel, chaired by millionaire businessman Dennis Stevenson, chairman of the trustees of the Tate Gallery, to prepare plans for action by a Labour government on information technology in schools.

The Labour leader derided the Government for being behind the times, saying that half of computers in primary schools and one third in secondary schools were more than six years old.

Mr Squire replied that the Government already had partnership with the private sector in place and was already testing IT projects in schools. He attacked Labour for "one-off gimmicks" and deals based on "political expediency".

Labour has offered British Telecom new commercial opportunities in return for connecting every school to the information superhighway.

Mr Philpott said that although about 7.5 million computers were owned by British households, politicians still had an important role to play in bringing computers to schools. "It is particularly important for areas where fewer families own computers, because there is a large disparity from area to area," he said.

Computers were of vital importance to education, he said. "Many parents believe computers are capable of providing educational information which children are not prepared to see elsewhere. Almost one in three children never or hardly ever read a book out of school, yet they will happily absorb the same information from their computers."

A spokesman for Computers in Education, an independent advisory unit, said: "More families having computers is a good thing for children because it gives them greater access. Of course, it does depend on what they are using them for, but even computer games will build up keyboard skills. We would still argue that more computers are necessary in schools because, due to economics, some families will continue not to have access at home."

Television watching has been "significantly eroded" by computer usage, particularly among young people, the report reveals. Fewer young people watch television at night and some spend up to 20 hours a week at their computer keyboards, mainly for educational purposes or playing games.

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