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Schools minister touts 'one interweb per child' pork barrel

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The schools minister, Jim Knight, has decided that every child in the country absolutely must have broadband at home, and has called on technology vendors to help him make it happen.

More than one million UK children don't have access to a computer at home, according to government figures. Now it seems that the ministers intend to compel industry and parents to share the burden with taxpayers to bridge the divide.

In an interview in today's Guardian, Knight said: "We need to get to a point where in the same way when they start school the expectation is you've [the parent] got to find a school uniform, provide them with something to write with and probably these days a calculator, and in secondary school some sports gear - well, you add to that some IT.

Knight says he has tapped BT, Virgin Media, Sky, Microsoft and education IT provider RM in talks to "bring down the cost of equipment". According to the minister, the government is pressurising them to do so, although he didn't say how.

The minister said he reckons the negotiations will be "crunchy", but that the government will effectively recruit millions of new customers fro broadband providers. Which is jolly sporting of them.

The Department for Education, Schools and Families said it could not provide any more information on the talks, their schedule, or anything else about the plan. "There might be something more next week," a spokesman told us.

A spokesman for BT told us that it "keenly welcomed" the talks, but said they were "at a a very early stage", and refused to comment further.

Microsoft hasn't gotten back to us on what it's bringing to the table.

Knight continued: "Obviously you need to make [computing at home] affordable, you need to make that universal otherwise you just advantage those who can afford it. To some extent that's the case at the moment, where 50 per cent of homes have got IT broadband, but they are hugely powerful educational tools... we know from the research evidence the difference that information technology can make."

We do indeed - from Knight's boss. In November, Ed Balls, the secretary of state for children, schools and families, blamed the UK's slide in world literacy tables on computer games.

Also in its mildly confusing response to the poor showing, however, the government said that "access at home to a computer... [is] strongly associated with higher achievement in [literacy tests]".

Despite scant detail, it seems we're looking at some unspecified level of means-tested state help with home IT and broadband for families who can't afford it. Putting aside child safety concerns in households where parental supervision might not be A-1, it's classic New Labour stuff.

The obligatory sop to Middle England is delivered when Knight begins talking up the the utopian world of "real time reporting" on kids: "I would like to see every parent... being able to access real-time information about their child. In a world where we can book our holidays online... we should be able to do the same as consumers of education."

The hope is that teachers should love the technology because it'll cut down on annual reporting paperwork, and the government believes handing parents Eye-O-Sauron-like omniscience is a vote winner. "They feel kind of out of the loop," Knight sympathised.

He promised: "Technologically we can deliver the ability of parents to be able to log into a school intranet, be able to see what homework has been set or look at lesson planning, whether the child is attending, see what the timetable is like, all of that is possible."

Possible, but is it likely given Westminster's track record on massive IT pork fests? If the Knight and co. can bring down the cost of IT to even anywhere near private sector levels, they'll have succeeded where dozens of projects have failed before them.

Still, with the stock market headed south, we're sure the industry will be very glad to be handed the public purse again. ®

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