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Charity chief: Get with it, gov - kids shouldn't have to write by hand

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The chief of a charity dedicated to helping Britons learn digital skills has claimed handwritten exams could be hampering boys' academic success.

Graham Walker, CEO of tech skills charity Go ON UK, demanded that political parties drop their obsession with handwriting and set a date when all exams will be taken online.

His broadside comes as the Big Lottery Fund pledged to plough £15m into a national drive to "supercharge" efforts to build a more tech-savvy Britain.

In the coming months, Go ON UK will embark upon an effort to help north-east England sharpen its digital skills. Although the area is among the most digitally backward areas in Britain, it has a small and growing cluster of modern businesses that El Reg has thoughtfully christened Tech Toon.

While discussing this latest project, Walker told The Reg that getting kids to take exams online would "embed" digital skills at the centre of the educational system and create a "pervasive tech environment".

He said: "When was the last time your employers judged you on a piece of handwritten work? The clearest way to change the culture in schools would be to move towards online or computer-based assessments."

Walker continued: "With boys, there is an achievement gap, so this is a big deal. Boys are not the most natural writers.

"Jeremy Hunt has set out a vision for a more tech savvy health service. I think the most impactful thing you could in education is to be clear that we are moving towards online assessment."

He also said that students should be able to bring their own device to exams, with computers or tablets given to those who couldn't afford it.

The North East skills drive follows a similar project in Liverpool, which led to a 55 per cent drop in people who had never accessed the internet. When the scheme launched, 104,000 Liverpudlians had never accessed the internet. Now 43,000 of them have taken their first baby steps online, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics.

Go ON UK focuses on teaching digitally impaired groups, such as the elderly or the unemployed, to use the web. In north-east England the charity has encountered men who barely know how to use a mouse and keyboard after working in manual jobs all their lives. One recent scheme in Middlesbrough taught benefit claimants to use the new online system allowing them to claim the new Universal Credit.

Walker suggested that digital skills bring benefits that are not just economic. "There are some scary stats about the isolation of old people," he said. "Just teaching them to use Skype can help address that. I don't think it's reasonable to write people off and not teach them new skills."

He recently introduced a 104-year-old to Skype. She now uses it to speak with her daughter, who lives in Australia.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, founder of Lastminute.com and chair of Go ON UK, said in a canned statement: “The Big Lottery Fund’s digital skills investment helps us deliver on Go ON UK’s objective to secure vital investment to build the digital skills of people and organisations across the UK. But we need other organisations to play their part and follow suit.

"The UK has built strong digital foundations – reliable infrastructure and high quality services are key components of the UK’s digital economy, which accounts for over 8 per cent of GDP – a greater proportion than any other G20 country," Baroness Lane-Fox added.

"However, as the benefits accrue to those who are online, those without basic online skills are left further and further behind and won’t see the full benefits of our current network – let alone the next generation."

There are 16 million people in the UK who currently lack basic web skills and 7.4 million people - out of a national population of 65 million - who have never been online. It is estimated that 90 per cent of all jobs require basic digital literacy. ®

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