There's fierce pressure on schools to join the information age. But how much gear do they really need?
Tesco and Asda are running new promotional campaigns this spring to persuade schools, and parents of pupils, to sign up for their voucher schemes. Shoppers get vouchers for every pounds 25 they spend, which are then exchanged through schools for computing hardware and software. British Telecom has launched its new CampusWorld online educational service for schools, America OnLine is pushing its new "online learning initiative", and Research Machines' Internet for Learning has been promoting a new schools online package.

Suddenly, everyone wants to wire up Britain's schools. Tesco's scheme has been around for five years; RM's Internet for Learning scheme is also well established. But in the past year, politicians have also decided that their route to heaven or Downing Street is via the educational superhighway, and corporate business has also leapt willingly on the bandwagon.

John Ward, director of consumer support for the National Consumer Council, says this is not surprising, given the success of Tesco's scheme.

"It's been a good marketing strategy over the past few years," he says. "It has definitely helped to create and maintain customer loyalty, and it's been massively profitable for them. Its growing popularity is due in no small measure to the fact that many parents now expect to contribute to their children's schools."

Tesco believes the scheme has increased sales substantially. Even though it has sent out 80,000 computers and peripherals since 1992, the sales volume that this implies is immense. The company hands out an Acorn computer and printer, worth pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000, only when customers have spent pounds 175,000 in its stores.

Asda has run a similar scheme for the past few months. Like Tesco, Asda issues a voucher for every pounds 25 spent. Under the promotion, 4,000 vouchers will "buy" a Compaq Presario, and a further 890 can be redeemed for a modem, software and a year's access to the Net. A total of 1,000 vouchers will buy software for secondary schools, while an Epson printer costs 1,050 vouchers.

The pressure on schools to get IT equipment is strong, but opinions vary on the amount and sophistication of IT hardware and software they actually need. An Asda spokeswoman says its research shows that teachers put a priority on up-to-date computer equipment and access to the Net.

But Walter Ulrich, information officer for the National Association of Governors and Managers, says schools often don't need state-of-the-art technology. Nor does the national curriculum help them to decide what they should get. "The technology programme, which includes IT, is a mess, and the Government keeps changing its mind about what it means by it. It's been a nightmare for schools," one teacher says.

"While school pupils are supposed to obtain competence in IT, how much equipment to get and what to spend is a question every school governing body faces. There is no quick or simple formula," Mr Ulrich says.

Even so, BT, RM and AOL seem convinced that online services, including access to the Net, will become increasingly important for schools. AOL is trying to use its home/school learning initiative as part of its attempt to become the leading online service provider in the UK. Since March, it has been offering secondary schools free access, and clearly expects parents to become customers to become involved with their children's education. Like its competitors, it aims to offer specific materials and services for schools, such as message boards, and facilities for pupils to talk to counterparts in other schools.

BT is competing with its CampusWorld dial-up online service. For pounds 12 a month, schools have unlimited access to a "walled garden" of teaching and educational materials. An extra pounds 10 a month provides full Net access. Schools that already have Net access through other services can enter the CampusWorld "garden" by paying BT pounds 10 a month. It has just introduced a further pounds 10 option, giving schools access to FT Profile's databases. BT also offers a phone tariff deal for schools using its services, which is likely to be a significant attraction to heavy users.

Both AOL and BT are expected to make inroads into RM Internet For Learning's educational market. With 4,000 accounts in 2,500 schools, it is thought to be the leading provider of online services to schools. Like its competitors, it offers a specific school education service and a full Net option (which is censored). "Unlike the others, we've always been an educational service, and we're not trying to get into people's homes," says Tim Clark, the service's marketing manager.

Mr Ward and Mr Ulrich are already worried about children being exposed to advertising through online access, though this is contested vehemently by RM, BT and AOL. A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers is concerned about families facing broader commercial pressures. "Parents are being pressed by children to get PCs at home, which adds to a sort of moral blackmail that parents often feel about having to contribute to their children's schools," she says. "Of course, it can create particular problems for poor families and financially poor schools."

She is also concerned that teachers have little time to evaluate the mass of educational materials available online: is the expense of getting up-to-date IT equipment and services justified in terms of learning?

"What do we know about the outcomes?" she asks. "With more than 9,000 teachers made redundant last year, and continuing pressure on school budgets, these companies are taking advantage of the systematic underfunding of education."