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Tories tight-lipped on technology deal

Mystery surrounds plans by the Government to spend more than Pounds 100m installing new computers in every school.

Reports this week have suggested that a new Cabinet committee on information technology, chaired by deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, intends to do a deal with manufacturers to buy a quarter of a million personal computers at a discount price of Pounds 500 each.

An anonymous Cabinet minister was quoted in the Financial Times describing the idea as a "tremendous opportunity... to manufacturers to massively expand their market."

However, a spokesman for Mr Heseltine, who chairs the IT committee, said it had been in existence for less than two months and no decisions had as yet been taken about specific initiatives. Ministers on the committee, including the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, were considering a variety of ways in which the public, schools, and businesses could make more use of information technology. Manufacturers contacted by The TES - including educational specialist Xemplar - said they had no knowledge of such a scheme. Nor did the National Council for Educational Technology, which is currently investigating the value of giving teachers their own laptop computers.

However, given that Labour is felt to have stolen the Government's thunder on schools and computers after leader Tony Blair's conference speech made it a central theme last autumn, it is likely that the Conservatives are keen to regain the initiative.

Education minister Robin Squire made no mention of the rumoured initiative when he spoke at this week's Curriculum 2000 conference sponsored by The TES and the British Film Institute. Instead he concentrated on discussing his department's Education Superhighways project launched last year. In a sideswipe at Labour's complaints about the age of computer equipment in British schools, Mr Squire commented: "It is worth pausing to ask why. Quite simply it is because we in this country started early and because we acted quickly. In truth it is also because schools exercise ingenuity in exploiting all their IT stock, old and new."

Ironically, Mrs Shephard appeared this week at the launch of a scheme urging businesses to donate used fax machines to schools. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, commented: "I concede that a second-hand fax machine is better than nothing at all. However, I cannot help observing that it typifies the Government's attitude to resourcing public services - second hand and second class.

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