Chips for everyone
IF you believe learning and technology minister Michael Wills, the Computers for Teachers initiative has been a resounding success. And he promises it will return next year.
But was it really that successful? Undoubtedly the scheme - which offered subsidies of up to pound;500 to enable teachers to buy their own laptop or PC - was popular. Launched in January, it became clear by early April that the pound;20 million initiative, due to run over three years, was in danger of running out of money in a matter of months. A deadline was therefore fixed for this year's applications which expired this week with more than 21,000 received.
The scheme was also innovative: it was the first time public-sector employees had been given such a grant, a reflection of the importance ministers place on teachers mastering the skills.
But some would say "success" was too strong a word for a scheme overwhelmed by demand in just four months and which will initially benefit just one in 20 full-time teachers. At this rate, even with the falling cost of computers , it could be a decade before all teachers are wired up.
The conditions attached to the subsidy also sparked some controversy. The deluge of applications came despite the fact that only teachers from schools which had signed up for lottery-funded training were eligible. Some teachers also complained the payments took much longer than expected to arrive.
Applications were boosted by the Government's decision to pay the income tax bill resulting from the subsidy. But unfortunately, because of the strict cash limit, this reduced the number who could benefit.
The biggest problem, however, with extending the subsidy to all teachers is cost. Ministers balk at stumping up the pound;200m-plus this would require. More likely is one of a range of options which could, within two or three years, achieve the same goal.
The options include:
Schools or education authorities could buy laptops and give or permanently loan them to staff. Neither has to pay VAT and buying in bulk knocks up to a third off the retail cost. However, only well-resourced schools or authorities could afford this. Also, the temptation could be to allow pupils to use them during class, denying staff ownership.
Unions have campaigned for computers to be tax-deductible for teachers in the same way as books and other equipment. But the Treasury is reluctant, fearing that other public servants would expect the same treatment.
This is probably the most realistic option. Again, if schools or LEAs buy the machines they do not pay VT and teachers do not have to pay a lump sum of hundreds of pounds. The drawback is that school or authorities have to fund the initial purchase and then administer the collection of payments from teachers.
Alternatively, there are companies, such as Syscap and ABK, that specialise in leasing computers to schools and local authorities. Such corporate leasing schemes allow users to get the equipment straight away and make payments over a set period and have the advantage that the cost of repairs and maintenance is met by the leasing company.
The Technology Colleges Trust, which advises around 500 specialist schools, is setting up its own scheme. This could offer teachers in these colleges a laptop for about pound;30 a month. Ministers are said to be watching the initiative closely and it could be extended to other state schools. However, teachers are unlikely to be queuing unless the cost comes down.
Downing Street advisers are also understood to be considering a proposal to encourage schools to set up charitable foundations to raise funds to back leasing deals with suppliers (News, 6).
The benefits of putting computers into the hands of teachers in their own homes are clear from research. According to Professor Stephen Heppell, director of the Ultralab centre and a government adviser, such familiarity is essential if the potential of technology is to be exploited.
"The danger is that teachers will waste the power of information and communications technology and imagine that computers should not be great learning tools but be teaching machines instead - there to drill know-
ledge into children," he says.
The Government's intention to renew the Computers for Teachers initiative next year raises an important question: will there be new money? More than half the pound;20m allocated is likely to be spent this year, leaving little for years two and three.
However, the Government is not short of money. Later this summer it will announce spending plans for the next three years and schools are expected to be one of the biggest winners.
There is more pressure on the Chancellor to invest some of the pound;22 billion windfall from the sale of mobile phone licences in public services. However, he is reluctant to do this, preferring to pay off national debt.
All this means the prospect of cheap or free computers within three or four years for Britain's 450,000 teachers is a real one.
Probably, these will come via a low-cost national leasing scheme. Although such a scheme is yet to emerge it could do much to boost morale and win votes for Labour as the general election looms.
The TES is campaigning for all teachers to be given personal use of a laptop computer. E-mail ideas or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org