North-South digital divide in Irish schools

28 Jun 2005

Computer giant Hewlett-Packard (HP) last night highlighted a wide gulf between schoolchildren in Northern Ireland (NI) – all of whom have access to a computer and the internet -and their counterparts in the South, many of whom are not so fortunate.

The contrast is embarrassing for the Government in light of Ireland’s status as one of the foremost technology nations in the world and the nation’s claim to be the software capital of the world.

HP won a US$100m contract in 2003 to deploy the computers and management technology to 1,200 NI schools over a 12-month period and then to manage and maintain the infrastructure needed to support the schools over a five to seven-year period as part of the Classroom 2000 initiative, which will connect 350,000 users.

By contrast, in the South, €18m – mostly stumped up by the local telecoms industry – will be spent to connect more than 4,000 schools to broadband. The aim was to have 4,000 schools connected to broadband by September when the school year begins. However, sources have told due to a slow rollout of contracts to some eight different broadband providers less than 200 schools so far are connected.

As education authorities in the North proceed with a 10-year plan to give all students from primary to university level access to their own PC, email address and broadband access, Martin Murphy, managing director of HP Ireland, criticised the lack of any similar scheme in the rest of Ireland and warned this could be harmful to the State’s long-term economic prosperity.

“The level of investment in ICT within schools in the Republic of Ireland is way below where it needs to be if our children are to become conversant with the demands of an information society,” he said. “Unlike our counterparts elsewhere – in particular in NI – there is no coherent vision or funding for the development of a managed learning environment for schools; there is no policy for furnishing schools with a minimum standard of ICT equipment needed to provide our children with an essential awareness of technology and there is no central procurement and distribution of technology by government to schools.”

Murphy also warned because under the State’s programme individual schools are forced to procure and manage their own ICT equipment for their students, the inevitable result is schools that are well supported by comparatively wealthy parents will be significantly at an advantage compared with schools serving disadvantaged areas.

Murphy’s claim is echoed by parents with technical backgrounds who have volunteered to help network their children’s classrooms. One parent recently complained that in two schools he helped to network the grants that are being provided hardly meet the costs of networking the classrooms – especially if schools are being advised to futureproof the classrooms by putting in place five network access points in each classroom.

“This is a classic example of a digital divide between information rich and information poor sections of our society,” said Murphy. “It is a situation that should not be allowed to develop and steps should be taken to avoid it, especially in areas such as education where the Government is ideally placed to wield considerable influence. Ireland Inc has thrived over the past decade because of the standard of our education system and we need to equip the current generation to go out and continue to compete with the very best talent that is out there.”

Sources have told siliconrepublic.comthere is a chance that there could be some overflow in terms of Irish schools that fail to get broadband by the end this year. Another concern is that bandwidth given to some schools could be as little as 512Kbps, which concerned observers feel is insignificant going forward and again creates disparity between the capabilities of children in different schools.

By John Kennedy