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Field of Dreams

So let’s get the good news out of the way first. Britain is the second best place in the world for eBusiness according to the latest independent report on such things from Booz Allen Hamilton, entitled ‘The world’s most effective policies for the e-Economy’. And when the cheering has subsided, I can tell you that it’s a mighty interesting document too, packed with colorful graphs and useful information on all things ‘e’.

The good news was delivered at this week’s eSummit in London and a parade of Government Ministers and international e-Envoys were there to support our own Andrew Pinder and, the Prime Minister, who told us that we were doing well “But not well enough” in our race to build this elusive thing called a Knowledge Economy.

“They’re all very polished”, remarked one of the journalists in the press room, listening to Patricia Hewitt, smoothly pressing the Government’s arguments home. “But I suppose that if a Minister talks like a duck and walks like a duck, then, we, the public have to believe it’s a duck, even if there’s some furious paddling below the waterline and the message itself is so very general in its nature, that it defies any solid criticism”.

Digby Jones of the CBI, did rather throw a polite spanner into the works by suggesting that as a nation, “we were in danger of sleepwalking into decline” and warned the government that new European legislation risked devastating the “agency jobs” sector – visions of IR45 again – on which the UK IT market floats.

But if the news is so good, why did I leave the QEII centre feeling utterly depressed and why were the other ‘hacks’ rather less than inspired?

I have page of notes about the reform of public services, snappy quotes from Douglas Alexander, the Minister for eTransformation and perhaps, I’m simply missing the torchlight procession around Parliament Square.

It was the feeling of spin that hacked people off. The Q&A session with the No10 spokesperson – I’m not allowed to use his name – was cut abruptly short and the next Q&A session with Patricia Hewitt and friends was abruptly cancelled. This left me and others with a distinct feeling that “Ve shall ask ze questions” and that in reality, questioning wasn’t to be encouraged and that the job of the audience was to listen politely, applaud on demand and come away from the summit suitably impressed at both the gloss and the progress made to date.

One question I really wanted to ask, I wasn’t able to, so I’ll ask it here. The Prime Minister has announced that al schools will have 2Mb of broadband by 2006. This without doubt is good news but pick up the Times Educational Supplement and you’ll see that schools and particularly Primary schools need rather more than a snowstorm of PC’s, new software and a big broadband connection. They are just as desperate for skilled staff who can look after all the expensive ICT, the interoperability challenge, which is being thrown at them by Downing St. Even then, what happens in 18 months when the PCs start to wear out or the cost of software licenses start to bite in schools that are hard pressed to provide text books?

Until we can properly train a new generation of teachers in ICT and writing as one who left teaching technology in schools for technology in the private sector, I have a suggestion for Mr. Blair. With so many universities now running computing and computer science courses, why not consider offering undergraduate students academic credit for helping local schools manage their IT? In Kuwait, computer science students can receive 20% credit on their courses if they qualify as Cisco engineers, so perhaps we can learn this from this?

I’m all in favour of a big picture view of tomorrow’s economy, fired by the white heat of certainty in the promise of technology but some of the more basic questions aren’t being given the attention they deserve, such as who on earth is going to manage all this new technology when it arrives in my daughter’s primary school?

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