Schools are to be given the chance to acquire free equipment ranging from computers to spelling books as the supermarkets continue to battle for customers.
Sainsbury is giving shoppers who re-use its plastic carrier bags vouchers to pass on to schools, which staff can exchange for items including mathematics toolkits, turbo javelins and crayons.
Almost 27,000 schools have been sent information about the Schoolbags scheme, which will be launched this Sunday and run until September next year. Sainsbury hopes to reduce its bag production - currently 1 billion per year - by 18 per cent, while giving schools the opportunity to invest in equipment worth Pounds 7 million.
Ivor Hunt, marketing director for Sainsbury, said: "Re-using carrier bags costs our customers nothing more than a little forethought. . . it benefits schools and helps safeguard the environment."
For a complete school weather station, customers will have to re-use 1, 530 bags, but only 240 are needed for a hand-held microscope. Multimedia computers can be acquired for 22,000 vouchers and the software for up to 2,830.
Schemes offering free education resources as a reward for shopping at Sainsbury started 10 years ago. The firm runs an arts sponsorship programme and teacher placement services and provides free education information packs.
Other supermarkets have seen the benefits of increased sales and prestige in promoting education. Tesco continues its Computers for Schools scheme which started in 1992 with around 10,000 schools acquiring a PC or affiliated software and hardware each year. Every Pounds 25 spent between April and July earns a voucher which can be used to "buy" Acorn computer equipment. For the first time this year, vouchers can be carried over to 1996 to enable small schools to save up for the bigger items.
Asda's 200 stores have links with individual local schools. The chain is starting a pilot scheme this term offering curriculum-linked information packs which it hopes to extend in the new year.
Although the new Sainsbury scheme is being broadly welcomed, many teachers lament the need for businesses to help schools acquire essential items.
"In an ideal world we would not need schemes of this sort," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "But the fact remains that schools are strapped for cash and this seems a perfectly sensible way of providing support."
Input from business should not be a replacement for adequate funding from the Government, he added. "National Government needs to come up with a better funding package next year. But it would be churlish to criticise or turn our backs on a chance like this."
John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said many schools will find the scheme helpful. "It is all part of the great supermarket war, but so long as schools benefit from the fallout such an initiative should be applauded," he said.
Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent- Teacher Associations said the recycling aspect of the Sainsbury scheme put it streets ahead of others. "Similar projects usually peg the vouchers to spending a certain amount of money," she said. "This way children learn that taking care of the environment pays."