The federal government's scheme providing high school students with laptop computers is on the brink of collapse, leaving parents with hefty bills and educators with a chaotic start to the school year.
Schools are already telling parents they must lease approved laptops for pupils this year, at a cost of hundreds of dollars. Some are telling students to bring their own computers, raising a raft of problems around internet capacity, security and provision of software, as well as placing pressure on low-income families.
Principals told Fairfax Media laptops were now essential for all students and they were being forced to shift the cost of providing them onto parents.
Northcote High School principal Kate Morris urged the state and federal governments to commit to funding for the program or provide a clear plan for the future as the uncertainty was ''unfair to parents, unfair to teachers, unfair to students''.
''Any reduction in funding or resources is something that will be felt deeply by the school,'' Ms Morris said. ''We are looking at … both leasing arrangements and students bringing their own devices, as well as providing specifically tailored devices for programs such as multimedia and art classes, but without knowing if the laptops scheme is coming or going it is very difficult to make plans.''
In 2007, as a key election promise - reiterated by Labor in 2010 - then prime minister Kevin Rudd promised all high school students would receive a laptop, a ''21st century toolbox'', but funding for the program finishes in June.
A spokeswoman for School Education Minister Peter Garrett would not make a commitment on future funding, saying the five-year program had been ''delivered on time and within budget'', with 957,805 computers purchased nationally at a cost of $2.4 billion.
The program also provided schools with up to $1500 per computer for maintenance costs.
Educators say without the federal funding, the promise of a computer for every student would not be able to be maintained and Labor's digital revolution would be compromised.
Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Frank Sal said it would not be feasible for schools to continue providing computers for all students when the funding dried up.
''The real question … is what is going to happen in the future?'' he said. ''How are we going to provide IT in schools? A long-term funding contingency plan was never put in place and with the funding about to cease, quite suddenly, we need now to look as a whole - schools, teachers, parents and all levels of government - at new ways to provide computers, which was now a basic and necessary school requirement.''
Individual schools have been left to come up with their own solutions to the crisis, some have funding to provide laptops this year, but the budget in most schools has already been exhausted.
Mt Erin College in Frankston has told parents they must purchase laptops through a supplier for $1341, or rent-to-buy with monthly payments of $50.
Balwyn High students have been informed they must pay a bond and rent a laptop for three years, at $50 a month.
At Glen Waverley Secondary College, principal Gerry Schiller said all year 7 students had been told to lease or buy an iPad. ''In the absence of the federal funding, the only way we can do it is by asking parents to provide the device that the student is going to use," he said.
Norwood Secondary College principal Vin Virtue said he had not yet told parents how to approach the issue as the school was still awaiting information on whether funding for laptops would continue. ''If the federal government isn't going to fund it, then who is?'' he said. ''Our other plans would involve costs to parents.''
Around the country, several other schools have adopted a ''Bring Your Own Device'' program, but stated they could not provide maintenance support and may not be able to use school-supplied software.
A Parents Victoria spokeswoman said school budgets and parents' pockets were under pressure from cuts by the state government and it wasn't feasible to ask parents, especially low-income families, to pay for computers.
Despite Prime Minister Julia Gillard's boast that under her government all senior secondary students could access a computer at school ''without their parents having to put their hand in their pocket'', the program has been dogged since its inception by complaints that the technology has been outdated almost as soon as it was delivered and schools were not provided with the necessary IT resources and infrastructure.
Joseph Sweeney, who is the author of a new education report, Bring Your Own Device In Education, that assesses the ''digital divide'' between students with new and older technology, says Labor's digital revolution was meant to close the equity gap and that the policy was close to failure because of the ''uncertainty and unsustainability of funding for one-to-one student laptop programs''.
''It's fine if your family can afford a computer. But if those funds are not there for you in the family then you're not going to have a computer in the school. Therefore, are you at an educational disadvantage?''
The state and territory governments have also flagged as an immediate crisis the need for extra taxpayer funding to replace hundreds of thousands of outdated computers which are virtually useless in classrooms.
Almost a quarter of them will need to be replaced this year or next.
The federal government has allocated the states and territories $200 million in 2012-13 to maintain and replace computers up until July.
Victoria needs $265 million in federal funds to maintain and replace the 142,000 computers, laptops and iPads in state schools over the next four years, and double the $29.5 million allocated to begin replacing 33,000 school computers this year.
A spokesman for Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu said the ''true cost'' of maintaining and replacing obsolete computers would be $66 million a year.
With Hope Holmberg