Up to 10,000 schools will each be allowed to apply for 100 free tickets in a regionally balanced draw aimed at ensuring that as many pupils as possible visit the dome in Greenwich during 2000.
The pounds 8m "giveaway" is understood to have followed pressure from the Secretary of State for Culture Chris Smith, and culture minister, Lord Falconer, on the New Millennium Experience Company. They are said to have wanted to give poorer children a chance to see the exhibition.
However, critics claimed the scheme was a panic move to bolster attendance figures and justify the pounds 449m of public money spent on it.
Children's tickets to the exhibition are expected to cost pounds 8 each.
The Prime Minister told the House of Commons of the free entry scheme as he announced that the Government was on target to raise pounds 150m in private sponsorship for the dome.
"With the eyes of the world on us at Greenwich Mean Time, it is entirely appropriate that we celebrate the millennium in this way," he said at Prime Minister's Questions.
"We also believe that as a result of incoming tourism there will be a resulting benefit to London and the whole of the country, running into several billions of pounds.
"In relation to the dome itself, there is not a single penny piece of taxpayer's money that will be used. We believe the sponsorship target of pounds 150m will be met fully."
However, Conservative culture spokesman Peter Ainsworth said that there must be worries that the scheme was a panic response to fears that not enough children would visit the dome.
"Children so far have shown that they are taking a sceptical view of this project. If you are given free tickets to go with your school, you are much more likely to go than if you had to pay and go with your parents," he said.Reuse content