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Jane Wakefield: Educate, agitate, organise

"We don't want no education" Pink Floyd once whined -- neither, it would seem, does Tony Blair want you to have any -- not on the Net at any rate.
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Education, education, education -- not one of Tony Blair's more inspired mantras and as class sizes swell and schools fall down, its probably one that keeps him awake at night.

Living in East London is not as depressing as you might imagine but what does get me down is the state of the schools. Go to the leafy suburbs and there are plenty of purpose built schools with airy classrooms and huge playgrounds but in the East End many of the children go to the same schools their Victorian forefathers would have attended.

In some parts of Hackney children have to play on the roof as there is no room to build a playground.

So what if the buildings are falling down, so what if five year olds have to have their classroom on the top floor of a dilapidated Victorian monstrosity? What matters is what goes on inside and, if you choose to believe the government's rosy statistics about Internet use in school, at least the classrooms themselves are modern, equipped with PCs and Internet access with our children on the cutting edge of 21st century technology. According to the latest government report, nearly 90 percent of primary schools and almost 100 percent of secondary schools are now wired, conjuring up a picture of kids happily surfing away in every classroom in the country as part of Tony's vision for a digital Britain.

Except the reality is slightly different. True, many primary classrooms now have a computer but it is highly unlikely that this PC will have an Internet connection (and, for once, I speak with a small degree of authority as I used to be a teacher in East London). In fact, in my experience, the PC in the corner of the classroom was more likely to be gathering dust than a happy band of technology-literate children.

This is because, on the whole, teachers in overcrowded classrooms do not have the time or the skills to use PCs to their best advantage. Not bad teaching, just lack of resources. If Tony Blair's mantra is education, education, education then the teachers' response is resources, resources, resources.

The government has been the naughty boy in the class over its presentation of the facts surrounding Internet access in the classroom. It has, I suggest, been more than a little economic with the truth.

While it may be true that 86 percent of primary schools and 98 percent of secondary schools have Internet access, this access is far more likely to be in the school office than in the classroom.

The government has put more spin around its e-education stats than the princess in Rumplestiltskin put on her wheel. The reality is that most primary schools have no more than one Internet-enabled PC and most secondary schools have a computer suite that kids will get to use once a week if they are lucky.

Once again Labour's e-friendly policy is propped up on statistics rather than substance. On Monday the government will reveal the latest stats on e-commerce (groomed no doubt to be extremely positive) and also unveil its UK Online drive (how good it is at soundbites), designed to get more people, businesses and government services online. Tony Blair will almost certainly make a big speech expounding the views of the e-economy and talk earnestly about everything government is doing to overcome the digital divide.

My advice: Don't believe the hype.

If the government can't even be honest about wiring schools then don't get too excited about its pledge to have all government services online by 2005. It has become clear that New Labour will use any trick in the book to get us to like it, telling us again and again how much money (always the same amount as before) it is spending on us. It tells us that £200m has been allocated to wiring schools but schools themselves believe it would be better off pledging to wire every classroom and train teachers to use computers and the Internet properly.

And the money it is spending is in danger of adding to the digital divide, with some local education authorities receiving ten times that of its neighbour. Call me a sceptic, but I doubt very much if the deprived borough's bid for IT money is as compelling as the suburbs. Often they have more pressing needs -- money for repairs, special needs teachers, language teachers for ethnic minorities -- brought on by years and years of neglect.

So once again the rich kids will be information rich and the poor kids will have a scruffy old computer in the corner of the room that is more often used as a blackmail technique for the naughty child. (The naughty child in the East End is, believe me, naughty -- often in training to take over from Ronnie Kray -- and the computer is something of a godsend, a kind of digital sedative that will turn a compass-wielding thug to putty in thirty seconds. Another good reason to get computers and Internet access where it is needed most)

The Internet has a tremendous power to do good in our classrooms. In fact it could become part of a radical overhaul of a curriculum that is too often based on learning by rote and obeying rules.

The Internet gives us all the facts so why bother learning them any more? How much better it would be to teach children how to think for themselves, how to use the information-rich society they are a part of to allow them to create new ideas and find their own creative niche. How to be responsible, original and caring citizens rather than another piece of factory fodder churned out from a school system which judges purely on how many grades we have on a piece of paper. That would really create an information society.

But at the end of the day, perhaps the government doesn't really want an information society. After all, an information society means just that -- a society wise enough not to put up with an administration that blinds us with facts and figures about our wonderfully modern education system but leaves the majority of schools with nothing more than a computer gathering dust in the corner.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.

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