HL Deb 23 January 1985 vol 459 cc217-9
Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many computers are now in use in schools in the United Kingdom and how many teachers have been trained to instruct in their use.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, it is estimated that some 80,000 microcomputers are now in use in United Kingdom schools and that at least 120,000 teachers have been trained to instruct in their use.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that good news may I ask him whether it is not true that, as a result of this imaginative policy, Britain's schools now have more computers per pupil than any other nation's? If that is so, does not this mean that the present generation of school attenders will be better equipped than their predecessors to get jobs in the expanding sunrise and service industries?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I do not know of any league tables, as it were, of the amount of computers in other countries, but I can say that we have far more microcomputers than people think. For instance, a recent survey has indicated that secondary schools have on average 8.7 microcomputers, and we estimate on the basis of reports some 1.2 microcomputers per primary school. I would agree entirely with the latter question that my noble friend asked: I am sure that this does indeed equip youngsters for employment in some of the newer industries.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the studies by the Equal Opportunities Commission and other bodies which indicate that girls get less than a fair share of experience on the microcomputers in schools? Can he tell us if this side of the problem is taken into account in the teacher training programme; and if not, why not?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I was not aware of that. It would surprise me if that were in fact true and I shall take great pleasure in looking into it and coming back to the noble Baroness about it if it is the case.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, while his first reply is very commendable in many respects, many people will hope that this obsession with computers and such-like will not interfere with paying real attention to developing the natural talents of reading, writing and arithmetic in the young people of today?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I really do not think that it is a question of a choice between the two; I think the two can go hand in glove.

Baroness David

My Lords, may I ask the Minister if the Government have a sustained commitment to microtechnology in schools? Will the resources be made available for the purchase of new data and retrieval systems, because there will be a constant need for updating? With local authorities pinched for cash there will be a need for more Government grants from either the Department of Industry or the Department of Education. May we hear whether the Government really are committed to producing more money for this programme, of which I thoroughly approve, for the future?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the original Government scheme was a pump-priming exercise and I think has worked very well. Many schools, and indeed many LEAs, have also bought extra equipment and it is hoped that, with the basic equipment that is available at the moment, schools and LEAs should be able to build on this from their own resources.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the next step is that computer learning should take place under all subjects across the curriculum? Will he confirm that this is now under way, especially within pilot courses for 14 to 18 year-olds which are being run by more than 60 local authorities, supported by central Government through the Manpower Services Commission?

The Earl of Swinton

Yes, my Lords, I would agree with that. In fact much of the spending on equipment purchased for projects under the TVEI is for new technological devices.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask my noble kinsman whether there are adequate computers in special schools and in schools with handicapped and disabled children, because computers are of great benefit to these children?

The Earl of Swinton

Yes, my Lords, this is a very large field in which the disabled can benefit. I think my noble kinswoman might be interested to know of two examples, rather surprising examples, in which the microcomputer can help. They are the physically handicapped—by enabling them to produce texts for the first time; and also those with severe learning difficulties, those with severe mental handicaps—enabling them to learn simple life skills such as how to dress themselves. Both these areas of work are included under the Government's Microelectronics Education Programme.

Lord Blease

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his reply will be studied with interest by persons concerned with regional development, particularly persons in regions concerned with economic development training and education? I am thinking in particular of persons in Northern Ireland. May I further ask the noble Earl whether he can indicate the comparative regional figures, and especially those for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales? If he does not have those figures readily available, will he undertake to publish them?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, the figures that I gave were for the United Kingdom and included Northern Ireland. I shall write to the noble Lord if I can obtain detailed figures—if such are available.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, is the noble Earl as satisfied with the Government's record on books as he is with their record on computers?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, yes.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Earl the Minister aware that in the United States the authorities introduced computers to children when they were at an extraordinarily early age? That was an experiment involving very young children, and those children have taken to computers remarkably well. Is that the situation in Great Britain? If not, is this not a point which our own Department of Education might examine?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I believe that the situation in this country is exactly the same as in the United States.

Lord Alexander of Potterhill

My Lords, far from the point raised by the last questioner, will the noble Earl secure that the children in our schools reach an adequate personal standard in numeracy and literacy before they embark upon a course in computers?

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I do not often agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Potterhill, but I shall do so on this occasion. Some children with very severe learning difficulties are motivated by computers. Because of computers, they can often find the encouragement to help them in their basic reading and writing skills. I feel that the two go together.

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