Laptop fund for four-year olds

Independent foundation to help government bridge the digital divide

Children as young as four could have access to a laptop by 2006 under an initiative launched by the newly established eLearning foundation Tuesday, which focuses on bridging the digital divide in Britain.

The independent foundation, backed by education secretary David Blunkett, has also received £1m funding from Microsoft, and equity donations from four startup companies.

The Department for Education and Employment has already made £500,000 available to the foundation, with the suggestion that a further pledge will be made from the £5m earmarked for eLearning projects in October's pre-budget report. Blunkett has offered his support for the national body, saying it "will help to play an important role in the government's drive to bridge the digital divide by providing children from low income families and in disadvantaged areas with access to portable computing and to learning materials via the Internet".

The independent national scheme aims to supply all children of compulsory schooling age with access to an "information and communication technology device". A spokesperson for the eLearning foundation confirmed that at the moment laptops seem the most suitable devices, "but we could be talking about networked desktops or even Palmtops in the future -- a key element will be seeing where prices drop," he explained.

The role of the national body will be to encourage local foundations, especially in disadvantaged areas, to implement the scheme in their area. "Sometimes this help will be cash, but the local bodies should be sustainable in the long term and would therefore be encouraged to be autonomous -- we would be attempting to empower them," said the eLearning spokesperson.

The ultimate aim of the foundation is to make computer activities second nature for children. "It is too early to say that we will be providing a device per pupil, or whether they will be able to take the laptops home, but the goal is to provide regular access to all," the spokesman explained.

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