Millions of pounds to help schools buy software under the electronic learning credits scheme could go unspent by the August 31 deadline because of confusion and a lack of publicity about the initiative.
A survey of schools by RM found 40 per cent did not realise the funding, as much as pound;3,500 per school, must be spent on approved software or online resources by the cut-off date or it will be lost.
The survey also learned that teachers were unclear about what the credits could buy. Almost a third of teachers wrongly believed they could only be spent on web-based products, said Bev Laing from RM's Curriculum Online team.
A Department for Education and Skills (DfES) spokesperson said that according to suppliers, pound;8 million in e-learning credits had been spent by April. That figure could be too low as some suppliers had not responded and schools had not told suppliers when they were spending credits.
Some schools had delayed spending to use credits with their next allocation to buy more expensive products or pool their funding to get better deals, according to the department. "The spend trend is definitely rising and we are confident that the first tranche of pound;30 million will be spent by the August 31 deadline. We continue to market Curriculum Online strongly alongside the complementary activities of digital learning suppliers," the DfES spokesperson said.
A total of pound;330 million in e-learning credits will be available over the next three years to help the software industry compete with the BBC's free Digital Curriculum materials. The DfES said each institution will get pound;1,000 plus about pound;10 per pupil.
Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association, said software companies were reporting an increase in orders from schools but added: "There is a lot of confusion and it is challenging to think that they will spend pound;30 million by August." He said the credits had not been adequately publicised and schools were confused about how the scheme worked. "The Department for Education and Skills has tried to clear up the confusion but they could do a lot more."
However, Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning, said the DfES could not be accused of a lack of publicity for the scheme. Orders were slowly increasing but he warned that unless there was an "avalanche" very soon, the pound;30 million would not all be spent. Granada was holding almost 100 after-school roadshows to promote its products in a bid to generate more sales.
Knowing exactly how much of the e-learning credits had been spent was difficult because schools were not compelled to tell suppliers when purchases were made using the funds. The Government wanted schools to order materials electronically from the Curriculum Online website, but this has been impossible due to technical problems.
Steve Bacon, general secretary of ICT advisers' association NAACE, agreed spending the money by the deadline could be difficult. He said schools would only have themselves to blame if the funding was not used. "The information is there - whether schools will suddenly realise they have less than half a term to spend the money is another matter," he said. "It would be a great shame if schools were not taking advantage of everything available to them."
Given the cash crisis facing many schools, some heads could be tempted to divert the funding for other purposes, said Paul Kelley, head of Monkseaton Community High School in Whitley Bay.
Although thousands of products approved for Curriculum Online can be bought with e-learning credits, many teachers want to spend them on all types of software, online resources or even hardware. For example, Noel Jenkins, a geography teacher at a north London secondary school, said it was not possible to buy Ordnance Survey data under the scheme.
www.curriculumonline.gov.uk; www.rm.com www.granadalearning.com; www.besanet.org.uk www.naace.org