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Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
City-wide school computers scheme
Nottingham has set up the first city-wide foundation to equip its schools and colleges - and students at home - with computers.
The scheme, devised with the software company Microsoft, involves setting up a charitable foundation as a tax-efficient way of raising the necessary funds to buy the computers.
But it could mean parents coming under pressure to pay up or see their children left out of the "e-learning" initiative.
"Teachers and pupils need appropriate access to electronic learning," said Paul Watts, the planning and development manager in the City of Nottingham education department.
It has set an informal target of 20% of lessons being taught using ICT by 2003, plus seven hours a week of individual study time.
To begin with, the aim was to get teachers familiar with the technology, trained in how best to use it for teaching, and swapping ideas on a network which was likely to include Lincolnshire schools through the East Midlands consortium which is organising fast internet links.
"In two years I would expect to see quite a lot of schools with some groups of children having laptops - but nowhere near all 42,000 pupils," Mr Watts said.
Nottingham envisages children having access in one of four ways:
"If there was a cheaper, palmtop-type alternative but with the computing power we need, we would go for it," he said.
"But for many of the pupils the laptop will be the best option."
How the money works
The point of the charitable foundation is that it can reclaim tax on the contributions made to it and the VAT on the equipment it buys. Microsoft has produced a brochure explaining the process.
If a basic rate tax payer in the 2000-2001 tax year makes a donation of £100, it says, the foundation can reclaim £28 tax - which means it gets £128.
Higher rate tax payers can reclaim an extra £23 themselves, so their £100 gift is worth the same £128 to the foundation but costs them only £77.
The big problem in somewhere like Nottingham, where half the pupils are entitled to free school meals, is that many parents are too poor to pay tax - so their donations are worth less and, unlike the richest, they get no tax break themselves.
Mr Watts said Nottingham's "guide price" for leasing a laptop was £9 a week. But the point of the scheme was not that people paid for their "own" laptop but provided funds for a pool of equipment.
Don't pay, don't get
"We are sticking to the principle that if you are going to take a laptop out of school you are going to have to pay some money for it," he said.
"If you can't find that money then you can't take anything home," he said.
He conceded that the biggest pressure would fall on parents who could least afford it, because the more affluent were more likely to have internet access at home anyway.
"That must be true. On the other hand you can say, for a parent who can't afford one at home, but wants their child not to be disadvantaged ... here is a scheme for them to have access to somebody else's laptop - on a fairly exclusive basis - fully insured and maintained for three years, without VAT, without income tax if they pay it, and with all these other people contributing to them having the use of it."
There was no knowing yet how many parents would be willing to pay, and if so, how much. He estimated that the shortfall that the foundation would have to make up was in the region of £50,000 a week.
Apart from local donations it would also tap other sources such as European Union urban regeneration money.
Continuity of funding, to sustain the maintenance and replacement of equipment, was a big issue.
Microsoft suggests that rather than the uncertain income from one-off donations, parents should be asked to sign a "deed of covenant" which commits them to continuing payments.
If they do not keep up the payments, the foundation can take legal action against them.
Mr Watts said some of the city's head teachers were sceptical about the whole thing.
"Our problem is to gain the confidence and trust of schools that there is a credible vision that can be afforded, that's technically possible, and that contributes to teaching standards."
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