RECYCLED computers are to be offered to deprived children and adults in a pound;15 million drive to prevent the growth of a technological underclass.
The three-year scheme will complement a second government plan (TES, September 24) to subsidise teachers who want to buy a machine of their own.
The computers are intended to support learning by children and students from low-income backgrounds and will be available in areas targeted by Labour's Excellence in Cities initiative.
Individuals and families will be expected to make "modest" monthly payments for a machine. The scheme will involve a range of computer companies, charities and firms that recycle equipment no longer used by business.
A network of 85 school-based city learning centres will also be established in these areas. The first 30 will be operating by September next year in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, LeedsBradford and SheffieldRotherham.
The project to give subsidised computers to teachers will help the Government meet its target of ensuring all teachers are making effective use of information and communications technology (ICT) in the classroom by 2002.
The exact amount of the subsidy will not be known until the scheme is officially launched, but should be at least pound;200.
Stephen Heppell, director of the Ultralab educational technology research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University, backed the scheme, saying it was a step in the right direction.
However, he said teachers who had already bought a computer might be upset at missing out on the cash.
Professor Heppell, a co-author of the Stevenson Report into computers in schools in 1996, still supported the idea of tax breaks for teachers buying computers - a proposal believed to have been scuppered by the Treasury. He regards them as essential as textbooks, saying: "You could not be a teacher in tomorrow's classroom - or today's - without a computer."
Falling prices in the computer world should make it easier to ensure every teacher has a machine, said Professor Heppell.
Prices have dropped in recent months with some outlets selling desktops for as little as pound;500. However, a computer that comes with a printer and a digital camera will cost closer to pound;1,000 - the Home Value System 500 from Tiny Computers costs pound;938, for example.
Laptop computers, which many teachers choose because they can be used at school as well as home, start at about pound;1,000.
The popular Apple iMac desktop sells at just over pound;900 and the portable iBook costs pound;1,250.
The ability to send documents by e-mail means teachers could use an Apple even if their school has only IBM-compatible machines.
If the Government is able to negotiate bulk discounts, the cost of computers in the scheme for teachers could be less than their retail price.