TEACHERS in England will get at least pound;200 towards buying a home computer, but only if they rush to the front of the queue.
Michael Wills, the lifelong learning and technology minister who made the announcement at a conference in Birmingham, said that only half of Britain's teachers owned a computer.
The scale of the subsidy is less generous than many had hoped, with basic laptop machines costing about pound;1,000.
Also, the budget is fixed at pound;20 million for three years, enough for only 100,000 claimants. It will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, which means the size of the subsidy could vary over the life of the initiative. There was speculation earlier this year that every teacher would be given a free computer, but the cost would have reached about pound;400 million.
New headteachers have fared better. This week Tony Blair announced that all newly-appointed heads will be given free laptops. Any teacher will be eligible to apply for the subsidised equipment as long as they can prove that they have attended, or are scheduled to attend, an information and communications technology training course, funded by the Lottery's New Opportunities Fund. The courses are intended to reach all teachers eventually.
Mr Wills made the announcement at a conference organised by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. He said that the purpose of the three-year initiative would be to make access to the Internet and the National Grid for Learning easier and cheaper. BECTA will administer the scheme and companies must meet the agency's standards before their equipment is accepted. Both desktop and laptop machines will be considered for the scheme.
Mr Wills said:"The ownership by teachers of computers at home is still only 50 per cent and many of those will be below national grid specifications."
Full details of the scheme will be announced at the BETT educational technology exhibition in London in January.
A similar scheme in Scotland is expected to be announced soon. In March, Prime Minister Tony Blair promised that all 40,000 Scottish teachers would get a personal computer by 2003.
However, a source said this scheme too is likely to be limited, on a first-come-first-served basis.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that the pound;200 was "an inadequate contribution towards what is effectively essential equipment".
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the union had not yet examined the plans closely.
"The devil is in the detail. What sounds a grandiose scheme, on closer examination may not offer as much as they claim," he said.