Gov't figures on 'wired' schools branded 'suspect'

Government figures on wired schools in Britain seem too good to be true. Observers say they are.

Government figures on the number of schools connected to the Internet have been branded "suspect" by educationalists who argue that it takes more than a single PC in a school to make it Internet-ready.

Others claim the government's policy on wiring schools may actually be widening the digital divide by unfairly distributing money allocated to technology in education.

The criticism is in response to figures released by the Department for Education and Employment last week which claims 86 percent of primary schools and 98 percent of secondary schools are now online.

But government guidelines only require schools to have a single PC to qualify as being 'wired', regardless of the number of its pupils. The criteria have been slammed as irresponsible and seriously misleading by Theresa May, shadow secretary for education. "This is yet another example of the government saying one thing but doing another... I know from the visits I do with primary schools in particular that there is a problem with Internet access and even when the schools do have the kit, they don't have the skills to use it effectively."

Chris Thatcher, past president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) agrees that there is little substance behind the government's statistics. "For the Internet to make an impact on learning we need to have one per classroom. The figures sound high but in reality the numbers of youngsters who have day to day access to the Net is very low."

Thatcher believes we need to mirror the US experience where each classroom has a connected PC as part of its national plans to wire schools. He thinks the UK should follow suit and worries that, without guidance at school, youngsters will not get the full use out of the Net. "They are using the Net at home in an unstructured and unguided way," he says.

A spokeswoman for the DfEE confirmed the one computer per school rule, but insists that "many schools have more than one".

Another past president of the NAHT and current headteacher at Intake Primary school in Doncaster, Liz Paver, believes the government has cleverly manipulated the figures to show itself in a good light. "They have put a rosy glow around the figures but in reality a lot of the wired computers are for administrative purposes only," she says. "Most schools would say that they do not have enough access and we would welcome any funding for multiple access points in school."

Paver also says the £205m allocated by the government for technology in classrooms is misspent. "Some authorities are getting ten times more than others," she says. It is wrong, says Paver, that a government initiative should result in such unequal sharing of cash and is "absolutely not" helping the digital divide PM Tony Blair is so keen to end.

According to Paver, one education authority which she declined to name, is receiving £17,000 to spend on technology in schools while a neighbouring borough receives just £7,000.

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) agrees it is likely the figures do not paint a true picture. "The figures for secondary schools are probably accurate but the figures for primary schools are more suspect," she says. "I think probably of more concern is the fact that many of the teachers who do have access to computers, either on the Internet or not, are not adequately trained."

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