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ICT diary

Local authorities, including Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwen, Doncaster, Sheffield, and the London borough of Greenwich, plan to follow the City of Nottingham which last month created a charitable foundation as a tax-efficient way of fundraising for schools' ICT.

These authorities are adopting a charitable model called an e-learning foundation, devised by Microsoft. The software giant believes the foundation will enable all teachers and pupils to have their own laptops.

The amount of extra money which authorities envisage collecting from parents using e-learning foundations becomes clear from Nottingham's estimate that its 42,000 pupils will require about pound;50,000 a week to fund individual technology.

However, some experts question whether fund-raising on this scale is feasible. Ray Fleming, secondary schools manager with RM, an education technology company working with Microsoft, says schools promoting foundations are failing to interest sufficient parents.

"Typically between 30 and 35 per cent of parents are willing to contribute, but to equip a class and teacher requires commitment from between 70 and 75 per cent of parents," he says. Schools' answer to the shortfall is to include only those pupils whose parents contribute.

Although the DfEE does not collect figures on the use of charitable foundations to raise money, which in practice usually means pressurising parents for regular payments, a spokesperson said it was discouraged.

"We provide sufficient funds to meet schools' needs so there should be no need to raise money in this way," she says.

Perhaps of more concern to schools considering this fundraising initiative is the bais on which support from Microsoft can be accepted. Microsoft devised its foundation model to enable schools to implement Anytime, Anywhere Learning (AAL), a scheme in which teachers and pupils are given their own laptops to use at school and at home. So far, all the schools setting up e-learning foundations are doing so to fund AAL. However, Microsoft makes use of its operating system and software on the laptops a condition of using AAL, and it has copyright on the AAL brand. "Schools using AAL will be required to use our products exclusively," says a spokesperson from Microsoft.

Microsoft attaches further conditions to AAL in that it has seven "approved" hardware partners supplying equipment. The Charities Commission says that as trustees, teachers contemplating adopting Microsoft's foundation model must consider the charity's objective: "If support is offered by a third party the charity will need to consider whether or not the terms of the offer are compatible with the purposes and the best interests of the charity. When trustees are convinced that it is, they may accept the support," says Rhian Williams, spokesperson for the commission.

The approach taken by Paul Watts of Nottingham LEA to the e-learning foundation and promotion of AAL to parents through schools has been to draw a clear distinction between the two schemes.

Mr Watts says: "The contract to supply laptops to schools adopting AAL went to a local supplier and not one of Microsoft's AAL hardware partners and although we will adopt Microsoft's operating system exclusively, schools will be offered a choice of word-processing and spreadsheet software programs."

Debbie Davies

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