A government decision to raid school IT budgets will have a "catastrophic" impact on education and risks leaving schools in serious financial difficulty, experts have warned.
Ministers have decided to double the amount of money being taken out of the key "harnessing technology" fund to pound;100 million, in part to finance their controversial free schools policy.
The move comes just weeks after Education Secretary Michael Gove said he planned to take only pound;50 million away from the initiative, which pays for new computers and broadband connections.
The decision follows the axing of the Building Schools for the Future programme, which provided state-of-the-art IT equipment for pupils, and the downfall of Becta, the schools' technology agency.
The cut to the harnessing technology fund comes mid-way through the financial year, leaving schools that have already ordered equipment and services out of pocket.
"They face having to break contracts, or if they can't get out of commitments and have to pay, heads could have to sack staff in order to pay the bills; it will be catastrophic," said Mel Philipson, chair of the national Regional Broadband Consortia and the Northern Grid for Learning, which procure IT for local authorities.
"We are stunned by the lack of awareness and knowledge by the Government, firstly to cut this important grant and also to do it mid-way through the year.
"Education will suffer and the fact this is because of free schools just rubs salt in the wounds."
The pound;50 million for free schools will be distributed between now and March 2011 to help groups develop their plans. The second pound;50 million, outlined in a letter from Michael Gove to local authorities, is one of a number of cuts to 201011 capital funding.
"We appreciate the difficulties that these decisions cause," Mr Gove wrote to directors of children's services. "Unfortunately, however, we can no longer deliver our full budget."
Every school gets money from the harnessing technology grant, which is distributed by local authorities depending on their size and type.
Chris Harrison, head of Oulton Broad Primary School in Lowestoft, said: "The great thing about it is that it created a level-playing field for IT in schools. It guaranteed they all had the same equipment and children had the same opportunities.
"Without the money it will be very difficult for 21st century learning to take place in schools if teachers don't have the technology to match. They won't be able to renew or replace. Their only alternative is to take money from elsewhere."
The programme, worth a total of pound;639 million over three years, was due to run in its current form until 2011.
Mike Welsh, head of Goddard Park Community Primary School in Swindon and president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said making cuts now would be particularly difficult for small schools, which will struggle to find money elsewhere.
"This is going to be very difficult for schools, they've already signed contracts and have bought equipment which they now have to pay for in some way," he said.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the NAHT, said: "This leaves schools in a mess. Heads have told me they've done what they were supposed to and have spent the money already.
"It's wrong that money is being leached from them to pay for a pet project which has dubious worth."
A DfE spokesman said: "There has been a massive increase in the use of ICT in schools over recent years and it is now embedded in schools, so there is not the same need for separate ring-fenced funding as previously.
"Heads know what is best for their school and are best placed to make decisions about how to use the resources available to them. That's why we are committed to freeing them up and moving away from top down intervention."