Educating the have-nots

By 2005, all government services must be available online. But how does this affect the people who want to access these services?

By 2005, all government services must be available online. But how does this affect the people who want to access these services?

The Government's pledge to make online services available to all may help fill skills gap

Michael Wills

Viewpoint

Many people have taken advantage of e-mail and the Internet, at home and at work. Most jobs now need some element of information communications technology (ICT) capability and the job market has changed hugely over the past decade, driven by new technology. Once someone is in work, training for office-based skills is usually of a high standard.

But the greater the opportunities offered by the information revolution the greater are the problems for those who are not able to take advantage of them. This "digital divide" between those who have the skills to use the new technologies and those who do not is widening and as minister for learning and technology I am determined to prevent a new gulf emerging between the information haves and information have-nots.

For the IT community, bridging this gap should translate into a lessening of the skills crisis, as more people acquire the competencies vital for today's job market.

Many people regard e-mail and the Internet as part of life, but they are still alien to many others. About one in three in the highest social group has Internet access at home, but only one in 50 of those in the lowest social group.

Men are more likely to use the Internet than women - more than half of men do so compared to 40% of women. Older people and those from ethnic minorities also use it less. Unemployed people, lone parents, the over 50s and people in deprived areas use these facilities far less than the average but they must not be left out.

The main barrier to using these technologies is cost, according to two in five of those who responded to a recent survey.

Last year, the prime minister launched UK Online. This initiative is designed to allow everyone who wants it, access to the Internet and e-mail - and to be able to do it near to where they live or work.

These centres are designed to meet the needs of local people who have low or no computer skills or who find it hard to get access to new technology. Centre staff will provide skilled support and help people to explore opportunities for further learning.

I want to give everyone the opportunity to use computers in an environment where their needs are taken into account - cultural traditions, physical disabilities, language difficulties.

I am also keen to encourage activities that provoke and support people's curiosity about ICT - and find ways to make it meaningful and useful in their lives. This will depend on centres offering activities relevant to the individual or the community. Gradually, this may lead people into more traditional learning, and more formal training courses.

We know that once the benefits of using ICT have been demonstrated to people, many ingrained prejudices melt away, particularly among those who until now have been put off by new technology.

By March 2002 there will be more than 6,000 centres, which will include all public libraries in England.

We also need to make sure that all children have access to new technology at school. More than 20,000 schools are connected - that is 98% of secondary schools and 86% of primary schools. We expect every school to be connected by 2002.

Educational content is keeping apace with technology - the latest innovative, interactive products are helping teachers provide stimulating teaching and more pupils are leaving school with ICT skills than previously.

It is hoped that these initiatives will result in an increase in the number of people who are able and eager to forge a career in IT.

Michael Wills is minister for learning and technology

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