No free rides on the information superhighway

Labour's plan to put a laptop in every satchel may not be so simple. Fran Abrams reports
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The Independent Online
When Tony Blair announced that under Labour every child would carry a laptop computer and every school would be on the Internet, even he probably did not anticipate the reaction.

While commentators eulogised over the opposition leader's plan to transform Britain into a newer, more vibrant society, ministers did their best to talk down the plan. But in the ensuing furore, few people paused to consider the practicalities.

What educational advantages will children gain from this technological windfall? Will their schools be able to afford the phone bills? Will teachers have the time to prevent them from simply surfing the net in search of fun, or worse, pornography? And what other disasters might ensue when 9 million youngsters trot between home and school each day with equipment worth a total of about pounds 1.7bn in their backpacks?

The response from the schools computer lobby has ranged from the ecstatic to the sceptical. Mike Aston, director of Computers in Education, which advises schools on technology, tends to the latter view.

He points out that simply handing out vast amounts of equipment to schools could be a disastrous waste of money. A Department of Trade and Industry initiative in the early Eighties that provided all schools with access to online databases had only about a 10 per cent success rate, he says. Nine out of 10 free modems gathered dust in school cupboards because they were handed out with little attention to teacher training, pupil supervision or the rocketing telephone bills they might cause.

"Giving things to schools doesn't mean to say anything's going to happen. There are a lot of add-ons," Mr Aston says.

BT has agreed with Labour to offer free connection for schools, colleges and libraries to its broad-band cable networks, for which homes and businesses will have to pay. In return, the company gets commercial freedom, the opportunity to offer movies and other services to schools at a price, the rental fees for the lines and the price of the phone calls the schools make to use them. In America, cable companies already have to connect schools for free.

While most schools possess more computer expertise now than they did 10 years ago when the DTI experiment took place, few are better funded. BT has not settled its prices yet, but connection to the World Wide Web currently costs about pounds 30 a month plus the price of a local phone call while it is in use. Mr Aston suggests that if schools put in detailed bids for equipment instead of simply receiving it, money might not be wasted.

The announcement that Labour is also talking to computer firms and local authorities in order to secure a laptop for every child could prove far more expensive. Even with prices possibly as low as pounds 200 per computer, the cost of equipping 8.5 million pupils in the UK could prove prohibitive. And with an average insurance excess of around pounds 10,000, schools will have to pay for most losses, breakages and thefts themselves.

However, there are proven educational benefits of such a scheme, according to the National Council for Educational Technology, which has just completed a pounds 2.5m pilot scheme funded by the Government. It says portable computers have a number of educational benefits, particularly in science. Pupils conducting experiments on field trips can record their results on a graph as they go along, for example. Pupils who lack motivation actually begin to enjoy their lessons and when the computers go home parents get involved and learn how to use them.

"It is not often that we do research which is so positive across the board. We were looking for the cracks, but we did not find them," says Fred Daly, director of the council.

The Internet has also won approval on educational grounds. Children can use it to communicate and to exchange information with others around the world, they can log into databases, they can use a whole host of resources, provided they are supervised and do not simply use it as a toy.

Others believe Labour's scheme could go even further than this. Jim Donnelly, information technology adviser to the Secondary Heads' Association and head of Litherland High School in Sefton, Merseyside, sees schools acting as community education centres where adults can use the hi-tech facilities in the evenings. But it might be cheaper for pupils to have networked, non-portable computers in their homes than to carry portables. They could tap into school databases and even hand in their homework without having to cart it into school on the bus.

Mr Donnelly says: "Access to computing is the big issue, and issuing every child with a laptop may not be the complete answer. Labour needs to sit down with teachers and schools and find the most cost-effective way of making sure children have access to these facilities."