iPad 2s are being handed out to all 1,200 students at a secondary school in Essex at a cost of almost £500,000.

Honywood Community Science School in Colchester has asked parents to stump up £50 in insurance for the devices, which retail at £400 to £700.

The school was recently granted academy status, giving head teacher Simon Mason more power over the budget. Mr Mason did not want to put the safety of his pupils at risk by courting publicity with his plan, but said: "If it is the view of others that spending 2.3% of our annual budget on a personalised tool for learning is inappropriate, clearly they are entitled to that opinion."

Local Conservative MP Priti Patel defended the move. "New and modern technologies can provide a valuable asset to help children learn and pupils in Britain and in Essex should not be left behind," she said.

The Tory also explained how "our international competitors are embracing the latest technologies in schools", possibly hinting at the decision by top Ivy League college Yale to give iPads to this year's intake of medical students.

The ubiquitous TaxPayers' Alliance criticised the move, saying taxpayers will suspect that money intended for education is instead "being spent on devices to play games on".