Budget 1999: Information Technology - `Computers for all' in pounds 500m plan

LAPTOPS WILL be loaned as if they were library books and up to 20,000 teachers will be given computers in the Government's "knowledge revolution", the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced yesterday. An extra pounds 500 million will also be made available as part of a "computers-for-all" scheme.

"Our target is a national network of 1,000 computer learning centres, one for every community in Britain," he said. "They will be in schools, colleges, libraries, in Internet cafes and on the high street."

Partnerships between local authorities, colleges and employers will mean that computers and software can be lent in the new century "in the way local libraries have loaned books in the last century."

An extra pounds 20 million will be made available to provide laptops for about 20,000 teachers to use at home.

The Government will also introduce legislation so that employees will be able to borrow computers from their companies as a tax-free benefit.

Mr Brown said: "Those who were left out of the knowledge revolution will be left behind in the new knowledge economy. The more individual talent we nurture, the more economic growth we will achieve."

Within three years, 32,000 schools will be connected to the Internet and 370,000 teacherstrained to use computers. Inner-city schools will share pounds 100 million to go towards improved technology.

Adults will be encouraged to brush up on basic skills and oncomputer literacy. They will receive discounts on course fees if they invest in "individual learning accounts" - savings accounts designed to help them pay course fees. This year, one million people will receive pounds 150 each for these accounts.

Those who sign up for basic education courses will receive an 80-per- cent discount on their fees, and employers will get tax breaks if they invest in the accounts. Employees will pay no tax on the accounts.

This will be funded by phasing out vocational tax relief, which has been subsidising non-vocational courses.

"Britain has achieved universal free education for children. This Budget introduces the opportunity for universal free education at every age, so everyone will have the chance to succeed in the new economy," said Mr Brown.

About 11,000 teachers already own laptop computers. The Government set up a pounds 5 million pilot scheme in 1997 to give laptops to 1,000 teachers to see whether they woulduse IT more if they could prepare work at home in their own time. The scheme increased IT use in the classroom, but it would cost pounds 400 million to extend it to the entire profession.

Last week the Prime Minister announced that all Scottish teachers would be given a laptop computer by 2003.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warmly welcomed yesterday's announcement: "The entire package will be welcomed by teachers. They are to be given the modern-day tools of the trade, with the training to make maximum use of them," he said.

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education and a senior advisor to the Government on adult education, praised plans to lend laptops as "very imaginative thinking".

He said: "Lending computers means that it is not just access to wealth that controls access to education. That's very important. At first sight it's a very creative move."

But some computer experts warned that technology was not a panacea for raising school standards. Rene Moolenaar, managing director of AngliaCampus, a leading provider of Internet services for schools, said: "The Government needs to ensure that the vast resources it has now committed to improving teachers' IT skills are not wasted.

"The Budget appears to be very hardware driven. People often forget that a computer is like a CD player - useless without software. To ensure that this provision contributes to the development of the National Grid for Learning, what really matters are the software and Internet packages."

John Field, professor of life-long learning at Warwick University, said that technology was vital to make sure initiatives such as the University for Industry (a government initiative set up to increase training in the workplace) were effective.

"One of the problems of policies designed to make folk take up technology is that it is really strange to them," he said.

"If you allow them to borrow a computer from the local library or walk into a community centre and try one out, they are more likely to use it." He said that tax incentives to promote learning accounts were vital to improve their take-up.

The accounts have been hailed as the best way of funding a revolution in adult education and training, but Professor Field warned that pilots had shown people were unwilling to invest.