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Computers subsidy frozen

Chris Johnston reports on the early freezing of the Government's Computers for Teachers initiative

The subsidy scheme to help teachers buy their own computer has been frozen by the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) after running for less than four months. Only purchases made before April 30 of one of the approved models will now be eligible for the rebate of up to 50 per cent.

The pound;20 million initiative, announced by the learning and technology minister Michael Wills at the BETT exhibition in January, is due to run until 2002. The DFEE says it reserves the right to end the scheme early "if the allocated funding is used up before that date".

The pot of money, however, is far from empty. A DFEEspokesperson says more than 12,000 applications have been received, but even if each one cost the Government pound;700 - pound;500 plus the tax burden it decided to absorb after initially trying to make teachers pay it themselves - the total comes to only pound;8.4 million.

The department insists Computers for Teachers has been a success, although that is a matter of interpretation. Only teachers in England who have registered for or begun the New Opportunities Fund (NOF)training in using ICT in the classroom are eligible for the scheme. About 10 per cent have signed up for the training, making the total around 40,000. This means only 30 per cent have taken up the offer.

Owen Lynch, chief executive of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, agrees with the DFEE describing the scheme as "exceptionally successful". "It was a bold and innovative way to assist personal ownership, which has certainly paid off," he says.

While a spokesperson says the DFEE has made "concerted efforts to ensure teachers were informed in good time" three weeks prior to the scheme's closure through newspaper advertisements and on its website, some teachers intending to purchase a computer this month will be disappointed.

Colin Constable, ICT co-ordinator at Warren comprehnsive in Romford, says it was bad timing to end the scheme around the Easter break. He was saving to buy a laptop in May and is angry about missing out on the pound;500 subsidy.

It is understood that some in the DFEE have been less than pleased by the reaction from some quarters to Computers for Teachers. It was one of the few instances where teachers have been offered something for "nothing", but many felt eligibility should not have been linked to NOF training. This prevented teachers who may have wanted to familiarise themselves with a computer before starting the training from buying one. And the organisers will consider allowing experienced teachers to make purchases from suppliers other than those on the "approved" list.

The DFEE has had problems administering the scheme. Last month The TES received numerous calls of complaints from teachers waiting for their rebate. As Online went to press, a spokesperson said they were aware of the problems and were recruiting additional staff to assist in the processing of applications and deal with enquiries.

The DFEE spokesperson said resolving the tax issue had delayed payments, but this meant teachers would not have to declare the subsidy on tax returns or pay any tax on it. She added that further delays had been caused by up to 40 per cent of applications being incorrectly completed. "Rather than simply being rejected, each teacher who has either not managed to complete the form correctly or who has not included the documentation required has to be contacted individually to remedy the problem," she said. Only a handful of applications had been rejected.

Some money is getting through. Bill Piper, a Swadlincote teacher, got his rebate early last month, but said colleagues had not got their money.

Another phase of Computers for Teachers has been promised for 2001, but details will not be revealed until later in the year. Owen Lynch believed the Government would consider all feedback before the next announcement.

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