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Thursday, 6 December, 2001, 00:59 GMT
School voucher schemes under fire
school ICT room
Schemes supplement schools' equipment purchases
Vouchers collected by the million by parents to provide school equipment - and backed by the education secretary - are poor value for money, says the Consumers' Association.

An investigation for Which? magazine said such schemes were marketing ploys of questionable benefit.

It said shoppers would need to spend about 220,000 in Tesco, for instance, to get enough vouchers for a computer worth less than 1,000.

Tesco called the criticism "astonishing".

School fixtures

It has become something of an annual ritual for children and their extended families to collect crisp packets, till receipts and vouchers from newspapers, to be exchanged for school equipment.

The cost of equipment with Tesco's scheme
1 PC = 220,000 of shopping
1 scanner = 45,000 of shopping
Go into almost any school, and there will be the collection boxes for vouchers.

The Which? report found that under Tesco's promotion, people needed to buy nearly 45,000 worth of shopping for one scanner which the store itself sold for 80.

The report said Tesco had given away only 4,000 computers this year - which each cost the equivalent of about 220,000 in vouchers.

The bulk of the participants in the scheme were primary schools, and Which? argued that this was an unrealistic target for most of them.

Side benefit

One school which has regularly managed to buy computers in recent years is St Stephen's C of E Juniors in Twickenham, south-west London.

Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, in The Sun
Top backing: Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, in The Sun
The school's acting ICT co-ordinator, Simon Gallant said: "It does seem a lot of money, but then I suppose people aren't shopping there just to buy a computer.

"It's not as if you are going out just for that - you are shopping there anyway.

"If people are spending it anyway, we are happy to benefit.

"I mean, it would be much cheaper just to go out and buy a computer, but it's a way of getting parents involved."

'Customers love it'

Tesco spokesman Jonathan Church accepted that in areas with competing supermarkets, the incentive might give his firm an edge.

But he said the main reason for running the scheme - now in its 10th year - was to support the communities in which the company operated.

He said a basic PC could be had for 11,990 vouchers - given out at the rate of one voucher for every 10 worth of purchases.

It does seem a lot of money, but then I suppose people aren't shopping there just to buy a computer

Teacher Simon Gallant
Mr Church said: "It's something that customers love to support.

"Schools welcome it, and children across the UK are using computer equipment that, without the scheme, they would not have had - or would have had to buy out of other resources."

Brigend headteacher Iwan Guy says his school has managed to get one PC with the Tesco scheme.

"The targets set to get a PC are out of the range of most schools.

"We have the vouchers to get software mainly."

Delyth Kenny, a parent from South Wales, says the schemes are a marketing ploy - but that does not worry her.

"It does not affect my shopping. If I am in Tescos and I get vouchers, it is an added bonus, that's all."

The annual Walkers/News International Free Books for Schools scheme is open to all schools in the UK and Republic of Ireland and almost all have taken part.

The latest round was launched with a double-page article in The Sun on Wednesday by the Education Secretary, Estelle Morris.

It has given out more than six million books - which means people have collected more than a billion tokens.

But Bridgend head teacher Iwan Guy says schools should not be encouraging children to eat crisps.

"They are not on the list of healthy foods that we want to encourage our children to eat in school," he said.

Which? said this scheme was better value for money than Tesco's, but the returns were still "modest".

Cost of books

Fifty tokens - up to 50 packets of crisps costing 15 or about seven weeks of the News of the World or The Sun, costing 21 - could earn a HarperCollins book worth, on average, 4.

But only seven of the 157 books on offer cost 50 tokens. About half required five times as many and were worth only marginally more, on average 5.30, the magazine said.

A Walkers spokeswoman said it was proud of the scheme.

She said: "It has been recognised and won awards for its contribution to the community and it is a pity that a magazine such as Which? - once so closely associated and respected for fighting on behalf of the consumer - has chosen to attack an imaginative initiative which actually benefits literacy and children."

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers said it feared voucher schemes could worsen inequalities in funding, with schools in less well-off areas likely to have more families on limited budgets.

The National Audit Office said the products involved in the Walkers/NI promotion detracted from the government's healthy eating messages.

See also:

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