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Chips with everything

Free computers with your breakfast cereal? That's not as far-fetched as it may appear with so many 'free' offers for schools. Valerie Hall checks out the checkouts.

Companies seem to be rushing to provide schools with "free" computers and other resources. Not all schemes are run for altruistic reasons, but in cash-strapped schools who is quibbling?

The latest to jump on the bandwagon are Sainsbury's, ICL and Microsoft who, with their joint "Schoolbags" scheme, expect to provide equipment worth Pounds 7 million to schools by September 1996. A voucher is awarded for each re-used carrier bag, to be put towards goods which registered schools select from a special catalogue. As well as saving on environmental resources, it keeps the tills ringing - 19,550 bags full of shopping would be required to obtain an ICL ErgoPro 44066 PC and 22,000 for a full Multimedia PC with CD-Rom.

Tesco and Acorn's Computers for Schools promotion, in which one voucher is given for every Pounds 25 spent, has now completed its fourth year. The latest figures reveal that this year over 20 million vouchers have been redeemed and 9,000 schools have sent in orders, of which 5,000 are for computers. Customers must spend between Pounds 5,000 and Pounds 20,000 at the checkout to collect the 200 to 800 vouchers needed for a CD-Rom disc and Pounds 30,000 for the 1,200 vouchers which will secure an Acorn Pocket Book II palmtop computer. The Acorn A3020 multiscan system, which is popular in primary schools, can be had for 2,000 vouchers and one with a hard disc for 3,000. For the first time, schoolscan carry vouchers over to the following year.

Acorn has gone one step further with its Advantage plan. Schools get "advantage points" when they buy Acorn equipment. These can be put towards a range of goods, not all of them information technology products, in its Advantage Portfolio catalogue. Acorn's new Visa credit card also generates points, and if they get people to participate in a TES-backed survey, schools earn 10 points per returned questionnaire.

Such "loyalty schemes" are clearly part of the supermarkets' battle to maintain or increase market share, but all participating companies benefit from goodwill and prestige in the community.

Initial criticisms that schools were being used as dumping grounds for obsolete or incompatible equipment and that many more vouchers were required proportionately for software than hardware have largely been addressed, claims Hilary Swift, Acorn's press officer. "We do try to ensure that the catalogue contains the up-to-date equipment that schools want and there is something for every school's infrastructure," she says.

Even printing companies are getting involved. The Gestetner Schools Scheme, backed by Business in the Community, provides free laser printers to schools, donated by businesses. Ten thousand schools have registered since May and 1,300 printers of all makes have been donated. Gary Freemantle, of the Communications Group, organisers of the programme, says: "Gestetner recognised that schools were either unable to print out their work or had to use slow, old dot matrix machines and that businesses throw away thousands of laser printers just because they're slightly out of date. The project has been good for morale as staff are proud to do something for the local community and give their own time free to collect, clean and service and deliver the machines."

What do recipients of this largesse think of such schemes? Chris Davis, head of Queniborough Primary School, Leicester, and Mary Marsh, the new head of Holland Park Secondary School, London, are happy to accept vouchers from parents already shopping in these stores but have reservations if they have to change spending habits. On the plus side, Mary has seen better support between schools - some passing surplus vouchers to others.

Although Mary Marsh's previous school obtained two computers by such means, she is well aware "the confetti is scattered unevenly". Chris Davis agrees: "Fairly large schools situated near these stores think such schemes are wonderful, but purely because of geographical location and size, some schools are better equipped than others. Our school of around 180 pupils has never managed to get more than a few CD-Roms".

Martyn Wilson and Steve Moss, information technology inspectorsadvisers for Hampshire and Cumbria respectively, believe that, since local authorities have insufficient government funding to provide schools with the equipment they need, any scheme which helps schools gain computers is a good one. Steve Moss says: "Some Cumbrian schools benefit considerably with one school obtaining a third of its equipment that way. However, since there are only three Tescos in Cumbria, many schools are too far away to participate. I have to wrestle with the problem that those schools which are better-equipped through Tesco then feel penalised if they get less money from the LEA than less well-equipped schools."

But Stuart France, managing consultant at the National Council for Educational Technology, argues that the number of extra computers going into schools by such means is quite small: "Recent Department for Education and Employment figures show that the ratio of computers for schools has been improving year on year. In the past 10 years the number of pupils per microcomputer has decreased from 100 to below 20 in primary schools and from 60 to about 12 in secondaries.

"Schools tend to buy a limited amount of computer equipment each year, so they can keep up to date and such schemes can only help that process. It is a small contribution, but welcome."



Sainsbury's: 0990 561271.

Tesco: 0171 637 7216.

Acorn Advantage: 01933 461500.

Gestetner. To register, schools should send an A4 SAE to Gestetner Schools Scheme, Burport Road, Brackmills, Northampton NN4 7BB.


Dixons' "CD-Rom For Education" scheme operates until November 21. Parents are awarded Pounds 30 for every Pounds 1,000 spent on computer equipment at Dixons and Currys stores which registered schools trade in for discounts on computer equipment. Details: Schools' Consortium, 0181 449 9965.

Secondary and special schools have obtained equipment through the BarclaysCommunity Service Volunteers New Futures programme. This year, Pounds 1 million has been awarded to 85 winning schools, among them Birkdale High School, West Yorkshire, which is using its Pounds 8,000 to teach basic computer skills to adults. Application forms are available at Barclay's branches. Closing date: December 15.

Project Connect, set up by Tosca (Trusted Open Connectivity Alliance), offers schools free access to the Internet through Janet (Joint Academic Network). Details: Project Connect Ltd, PO Box 1381, Wrexham, Clywd LL13 OZF.

The Cable Communications Association has announced that all schools passed by a Cable TV network will be connected at the expense of the companies. Tel: 0800 300700

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