Just a few hours at London's BETT educational technology show in January and you could have been forgiven for thinking everything was rosy in the world of school computers. The floor was a vibrant marketplace. And so it should have been: the pound;105 million in the Standards Fund earmarked for technology this year is a lot of money, and there are plenty of companies vying for a share.
But once away from Kensington's Olympia, the picture is not so bright and there is growing disquiet over how the money is being shared out. Many feel some schools are being unfairly penalised by a combination of factors, most notably the central role local authorities have in sharing the money out.
All schools are to be connected to the National Grid for Learning by 2002. To achieve its target, the Government has allocated grants but, under the terms of the deal, every pound must be matched by each school's local authority. And authorities differ widely in what they consider they can afford.
Among those expressing concern is the National Association of Head Teachers, which has described the glaring disparities in spending as "nothing short of scandalous".
Rowie Shaw, the association's professional services director, said: "I know of one headteacher in Trafford who received pound;18,000 for her primary school, with absolutely no restrictions on how she was to spend it. On the other hand, I know of a head in Cornwall who has only pound;4,000, and the LEA was making all the decisions about how the money should be spent."
The allocations to local education authorities in the Standards Fund earmarked for the National Grid for Learning bear this out. Dudley Council in the Midlands received pound;4m for 1998-2000, an average of pound;35,714 per school. Although Dudley's total allocation is not the largest in England, the average payment to schools is the greatest by some considerable margin. Schools in Telford amp; Wrekin come second with an average of pound;25,057.
Dudley, which won the Local Government IT Excellence Award in 1996, has its own learning grid. With the help of RM, the computer suppliers that specialise in education, all the council's schools will soon be linked. They will also get a new network and workstations, state-of-the-art facilities, such as video conferencing and digital imaging, and 24-hour technical support. RM has also won the contract to supply that support, the first managed services contract for an entire authority.
As Alan Jones, head of Ashwood Park primary school in Stourbridge (see case study), explains, this work forms part of a private finance initiative bringing in pound;30m worth of investment over 10 years. "What we are doing in the coming year will be pretty fantastic," he said.
Just a short distance north of Dudley, at the other end of the scale, comes Derbyshire county council, which received pound;1.4m, an average of pound;3,335 per school. Brian Gamble, ICT co-ordinator at Highfield school, Matlock, says his school has no network and a computer-to-pupil ratio of 1:15. Most of the systems are not very new. "Against a background where a department can't afford to use the photocopier for four months of the year, I can't say I want X thousand pounds for computers. I have to be very careful not to be laughed out of staff meetings," says Mr Gamble.
Back at the NAHT, Rowie Shaw's concerns include the wider questions of social justice and access to online educational resources. The only way, she believes, of ensuring that the advantages of computer access are open to disadvantaged children is by implementing a coherent ICT strategy, with a planned distribution of resources to schools. Her association believes this is not happening and fears that, ironically in the age of New Labour, the disenfranchised could be marked more clearly than ever.
Change is unlikely without addressing the short-term and piecemeal nature of education spending, says Ms Shaw. "It is like so much education funding. It's for one year only. It's not very stable."
Money is not the only problem. The speed at which schools are being asked to equip is overloading staff already stretched with the national literacy and numeracy strategies.
Time is a serious issue, and Mandy Marriott, ICT co-ordinator at Horninglow county infants in Burton-on-Trent echoed other teachers when she said:
"It's important we don't go too fast. We want to take things steadily so we don't put too much pressure on staff."
All of these factors emphasise the great need for a coherent ICT policy, not only to minimise disparities, but to achieve the aim of linking all schools to the National Grid for Learning by 2002.
Chris Thatcher, headteacher of Potters Green primary school, in Coventry, is NAHT vice-president and chairman of its ICT committee. He shares both the concerns and the excitement created by this initiative.
Although he is aware that many teachers still need fairly basic training, he believes that without a challenging target, the "mindset" would not change. He said: "Schools are not used to this situation - where the Government provides resources to meet a target that must be achieved.
"The Government has made it very clear from its financial commitments that the new technologies should be brought into schools very quickly. By the year 2002, communication between schools and the Department for Education and Employment will be paperless.
"When you start to look at it in those terms, four years is not a long time," he said. "I think the Government is very brave in making a commitment like this, stating targets it can be judged against. If I could do one thing now it would be to start in education now because the next 20 to 30 years will be the most exciting period of time in our history."