The IT industry-backed initiative to link UK schools to the Internet, called Project Connect, celebrated its official launch with a 10-point charter for technology in education.
The initiative, which includes vendors such as Oracle, Novell and Bay Networks, is calling for funding from businesses in its bid to help connect 300 schools to the Net by the end of next year. It does not expect money from the government. Said Paul Martin, chief executive of Project Connect, "We've never asked for funding from the government before and we don't intend to do so. We will ask commerce. Whoever wins the next general election will not put a lot of money into an operation like this. It will go into the fabric of the school such as buildings, not IT."
The initiative already counts 30 members from the IT industry, who each pay #7,500 administration fee to join. Other members include Bull, IBM, Zenith Data System and Xenon Computer Systems.
Schools that want to be wired apply to Project Connect, which will qualify them and send a site manager, who could be a service provider or system integrator, to evaluate whether they already have equipment that can be used. They are then given a quote - on average #40,000 for a package which includes connection charges and equipment. The schools can apply to have some of the cost paid for by a charitable fund. Details of how much the fund will be worth will be available early next year.
Two notable IT players that are not members are Microsoft and BT, though Project Connect had been in discussions with them. Said Martin: "BT and Microsoft tried to take over Project Connect. One company cannot be the answer to everything." He disbelieved that BT's ISDN lines were the way forward and said he would prefer to talk to cable companies.
The initiative was established two years ago. It surveyed 200 of the UK's 28,000 schools about use of the Internet. More than 85 per cent of IT coordinators in schools said high connection charges were the main hurdle to taking advantage of the World Wide Web. This compares with 75 per cent who blamed the time needed for teaching staff to learn new skills, 26 per cent who named the fear of introducing computer viruses and 12 per cent who blamed unsuitable material on the Net.
Included in the charter are calls for minimum standards for IT literacy as a subset of the national curriculum in schools, closing the gap between computer skills taught in school and those needed in business, the introduction of computers in primry schools, free access provided by telecomms operators, more educational software and a better understanding of the Internet and its benefits.
Project Connect is one of a number of computers for schools initiatives. Last year the government launched Schools Online, initially aimed at linking 60, and later 2,500, schools to the Internet. Martin said Project Connect is not in competition with Schools Online but said: "It was a gesture to put hardware and modems into schools. If you just shove PCs and modems into schools they will stay in the cupboard unless you give them servers, networked computers and training."
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