New computer users could be caught unawares by the differing charge rates for calls to the firms supplying their equipment, says Chris Johnston.
TEACHERS could be charged as much as pound;1 a minute - pound;60 an hour - for help with computers bought under a Government scheme.
They must buy an approved system to qualify for a rebate of up to pound;500 before tax, but there are wild variations in the cost of telephone calls to the helplines of the companies concerned.
Compaq charges pound;1 a minute for help with equipment, while the DTP Group levies the same fee for assistance with Internet problems. Problems with equipment, however, are charged at local rates.
BT, which resells computers from Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu, charges 60p a minute for both services, while RM, the biggest supplier of computers to schools, charges 50p a minute. Calls to Fujitsu for Internet help cost 50p a minute as well.
Four of the 19 companies involved in the scheme charge national call rates of 5p a minute for help, seven cost only a local call, and two - Gateway and Evesham - are both free.
Paul Hopkins, an independent educational consultant, said he regularly needed to call helplines for advice when installing new software and often experienced delays of 20 minuts.
He said new users, the very people the computers in the scheme are for, would have little idea of how long they might have to spend on the telephone helplines and may not realise their actual cost until receiving a frightening phone bill.
The National Union of Teachers wants the Government to provide supply cover for all teachers undertaking the Lottery-funded training programme for using computers in the classroom.
John Bangs, the NUT's assistant general secretary, said major inequalities occurred because larger schools could afford to release teachers to do training during class time, but smaller ones could not.
The initiative was not intended to fund supply cover. It would boost the cost of the programme from pound;230 million to pound;2 billion, a DFEE spokesman said.
Mr Bangs said the situation was unacceptable as the new pay levels depended on teachers being competent computer users.
The link between registering for the training and being eligible for a rebate under the scheme was another reason why the union wanted changes made.
The scheme will offer more choice and weekly price updates from March 1. Price fluctuations are expected in the industry and the change will allow reductions to be passed on to buyers.