The world of e-mail enters the classroom

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All children over the age of nine should have their own e-mail identity, according to a report from an independent inquiry published today.

The inquiry, set up by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, to provide independent evidence about information technology in schools says it could be achieved cheaply once the problem of access to children's names and addresses had been solved.

Children would be attracted by the idea of communicating with experts through information technology and by easy access to the Internet, the report suggests. Only a small computer and a handful of staff would be needed.

Dennis Stevenson, chairman of GPA plc and chairman-elect of the Pearson group, who chaired the inquiry, said: "It's blisteringly simple but it's a very good idea. You could have a system by which heads who wished their children to have e-mail would write in. That would catch on very quickly."

The report describes the state of IT in schools as "primitive": nearly 50 per cent of desktop computers in primary schools are more than five years old and in some secondary schools and nearly one-third of primaries there is only one computer for a whole class.

But the answer is not to invest in expensive hardware. Instead, teachers should receive IT training and be given tax breaks to buy their own home computers because research shows that the best way to improve IT skills is by practice. Around 60 per cent of teachers are thought to be in need of IT training.

Mr Stevenson said: "I would rather buy 20,000 teachers computers than 5 million children. It would be grossly irresponsible to give every child a laptop when there are neither the teachers nor the software to support them."

He and his team believe that the total would be tens rather than hundreds of millions.

The report says the Government should make use of the Internet affordable and predict- able for school by negotiating an agreement with the telecommunications industry.

There should be an educational website which would allow teachers and pupils to swap software, say, about the best way to teach King Lear. A report from the consultants, McKinsey & Co suggests 22 per cent of homes already have computers and that figure will rise to 44 per cent by 2000.

Labour has done a deal with British Telecom and the cable companies to link all schools up to the Internet free. It is also promising to use Lottery money to train teachers in IT from 2000.

Mr Blair has also proposed a national grid for learning which would franchise educational publishers to provide national curriculum material on an Internet site.

However, the inquiry team says, the Government will need to make sure all children have access to computers as in the past they tried to ensure that everyone had access to books through public libraries.

The report says schools should open for computer use outside hours and there should be new cyber centres and computer banks for the public in libraries. There should also be a departmental minister with the remit of improving information and communications technology in schools.

The report argues: "It is sometimes said that the UK is ahead in the penetration of computers in schools internationally. It is doubtful whether this is true. Even it if were, this is analagous to suggesting that a runner is ahead after 500m of a marathon."

And it concludes: "If the Government does not take steps to intensify the use of information and communications technology a generation of children will have been put at an enormous disadvantage with consequences for the UK that will be difficult to reverse."