Laptops worth pounds 125m targeted for every school

Educational needs: Tories plan buying 250,000 computers in effort to wrest IT initiative from Labour
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The Government is looking at ways to trump Labour's promise of a "laptop computer in every classroom", with plans to spend pounds 125m on 250,000 personal computers for all schools.

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, who chairs a cabinet committee on information technology, is keen to regain the initiative on the use of IT in education from Tony Blair, the Labour leader, who made it a central theme of his conference speech last October.

A spokesman for Mr Heseltine yesterday confirmed that a deal to buy 250,000 PCs at a discount price of pounds 500 each was likely to be one of the options the committee was looking at. "We are offering a tremendous opportunity here to manufacturers to massively expand their market," an unnamed Cabinet minister was quoted as saying in yesterday's Financial Times.

A spokesman for Mr Blair said: "We welcome the Government's belated interest in computer IT in schools. It's certainly not before time, given that half the computers in primary schools and a third of the computers in secondary schools are over six years old."

Both parties are keen to associate themselves with the idea of harnessing new technology to the educational needs of future generations.

Mr Blair will restate his claim to this prime political territory in a speech to an audience of educationalists tomorrow. He is expected to develop the deal announced in his Brighton speech last year with BT, which has promised to link all schools to the "information superhighway" free of charge.

Mr Blair's plans attracted criticism for merely setting out what BT and its cable competitors were doing anyway. The cable companies were particularly irritated, and Labour then went out of its way to say they were also part of the BT deal.

The Labour leader will also announce tomorrow that he is setting up a group to work out the details of his promise that "every child should have access to a laptop computer". This is expected to build on plans announced by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, at the National Union of Teachers conference to bring private-sector finance into schools.

The public relations value of educational IT has been underlined by schemes run by the big food retailers, including Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda, to provide computers for schools.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, yesterday backed a scheme to urge businesses to give schools second-hand fax machines. She attended the launch of the Gestetner Faxes for Kids Scheme, and said: "I believe this is an excellent example of how private and public sector can work together."

Nigel de Gruchy, leader of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, was unimpressed: "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."