EARLY in the autumn term thousands of teachers will be unwrapping shiny new laptop computers, courtesy of the Government.
The Laptops for Teachers initiative will cost pound;100 million over two years and at least one teacher in every English school should benefit.
But it has been a long time coming. In 1998, the then education secretary David Blunkett announced plans to spend pound;23m on laptops following a successful pound;5m pilot. Two years later there had been little progress and, in January 2000, The TES launched a campaign to persuade the Government to give every teacher a laptop. Instead, it launched the pound;20m Computers for Teachers scheme, giving a subsidy of up to pound;500 for each machine bought. More than 22,000 teachers applied, but many had to wait months for the money. A year later the subsidy was limited to maths teachers, but the Government promised to put pound;50m into a new scheme beginning in 2002. Education Secretary Estelle Morris doubled that funding earlier this year.
This is the first time the Government has given machines free of charge to teachers - but the laptops will be owned by schools, with the funds being routed through local education authorities. Kent will be given nearly pound;3m, while the tiny City of London authority will get pound;2,318 - for one primary school.
The new scheme is open to all teachers, including those who do not work in mainstream schools, such as supply teachers. It is not available to independent schools, city technology colleges, or FE colleges, though teachers in sixth-form colleges are eligible. And teachers who have benefited under other Department for Education and Skills schemes will not be able to ask for a second machine.
Teachers cannot go out and buy a machine and expect to be reimbursed - the laptops have to be bought by the LEA, which decides how they should be allocated. Guidance on the distribution of laptops was issued in March and the 24 suppliers were accredited by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) in June. Prices have been fixed until the end of July and orders can now be placed. Funding has been "capped" at pound;1,100 for a machine, though LEAs could add to the pot for more sophisticated machines if they wished.
"This is a very welcome scheme," said John Davies at the Dudley Grid for Learning. "Teachers want more machines, they want better machines."
Dudley already has 2,500 laptops in its schools, making it possibly the best resourced authority in the country. The machines arrived three years ago as part of a private finance initiative.
Dudley's share of the pot will be pound;660,000 and the authority has been consulting with heads and ICT co-ordinators as to what kind of machines should be purchased and how they should be distributed.
DFES guidelines make it clear that every head should have a machine, but many have already been given one via the Virtual Heads initiative.
At Dudley's High Arcal school, head Jeff Williams already has 24 laptops for a staff of 60-plus. "We've previously given one laptop to each area of study," he said. "That made a big difference. We'll be trying to expand that, making sure that we get a good distribution across the school. We'd like to see them used as a shared resource."
That may be possible, but the DFES guidelines state that the laptops will belong to the teachers, at least as long as they work at the school. There is no requirement to bring them into schoolss to make them available for classroom use.
What authorities may not do is distribute on the basis of educational need or use criteria like the deprivation index of the catchment area. Instead, they must work with heads to distribute the machines fairly across all schools.
WHAT'S THE DEAL
The laptops are available in a variety of specifications, but the grant does not include peripherals such as scanners or printers.
* Minimum software specification will include a set of "office" applications, with word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation packages. It will also include virus-protection software, a network card, modem, three-year warranty, technical support helpline and Internet service provision.
* There are 24 suppliers including Apple, Dell, IBM and RM, with some less well-known names such as Merseygrid. LEAs do not have to order from one supplier.
* There is lots of website advice available: The Laptops for Teachers website includes the catalogue and full technical specifications along with "frequently asked questions": lft.ngfl.gov.uk There is also advice on the ICT advisers' website at www.naace.org - non-members can log in as a visitor.
* Call the Laptops for Teachers helpdesk on 0870 241 4679.
* The scheme only benefits teachers in England. There is no equivalent funding in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, though some Scottish and Welsh LEAs have provided teachers with laptops as part of local ICT initiatives.