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Specialists scoop pound;4m software deal

Computing giant's sponsorship of 40 secondaries raises concerns over cynical marketing.

ONE of the world's largest software companies has agreed apound;4 million sponsorship deal to improve computing in specialist schools in England.

Forty secondary schools will each get software and other support valued at pound;100,000 from the deal between Oracle, the Government and the Specialist Schools Trust.

The schools, all of which hope to become maths and computing, technology or business and enterprise colleges, will get software, learning materials and teacher training from the company.

Sixth-formers will be offered courses in the development of applications, database and business skills using the company's learning materials.

Concerns about sponsorship deals have increased following the Cadbury's scheme which allows schools to collect sports equipment in return for chocolate bar wrappers.

But Ian Smith, managing director of Oracle UK, denied the company was using schools to market its software to pupils.

"It is not like drugs. We are not trying to feed you a bit in the hope that you will want more later.

"We have a similar initiative with about 300 schools in the United States and it is working well.

"The key point is to get to teachers first and to teach them about how the internet is going to change the world."

Schools which benefit from the deal will only have to raise half the pound;50,000 in sponsorship normally expected of applicants for specialist status.

There are almost 1,000 specialist schools and the Government hopes to double that number by 2006.

Oracle is best known for its work with databases and Java technology, which is used to write websites.

Larry Ellison, Oracle chairman and one-time richest man in the world, is well known in the business world for his flamboyant style.

The billionaire recently funded an unsuccessful assault on the America's Cup yacht trophy and pilots his own jets. He is also known for a long-running feud with Bill Gates, head of the rival Microsoft corporation.

Both Microsoft and Oracle are already partners in IT academies which train pupils and other members of the local community to use software provided by the company. There are nearly 500 such academies in England with many more planned.

John Bangs, National Union of Teachers' head of education, said: "We have concerns about the drive towards sponsorship as a replacement for state funding.

"But if we are going to have sponsorship then it must be fair. If the whole of the Government's focus is getting ICT companies to concentrate on specific specialist schools, then it is only going to increase inequities between schools."

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