Becta, open source and education: Too little, too late?

Inertia, fear of the unknown and agreements with vendors have lead to slow adoption of open source and free software in UK schools.

Back in 2005, Becta - the body that advises the UK government on IT policy in education - issued a report which concluded that free and open source software could reduce the cost of deploying, supporting and maintaining computer systems in primary schools by between 20 and 50 per cent.

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Becta's report was the conclusion of a study of 48 schools over a period of three years, which compared 33 schools running traditional proprietary systems, against 15 that were running open source solutions.

Cost is a major factor in determining IT policy for schools. Yet there has been little or no coordinated policy to encourage open source adoption at this level. There are many examples of successful deployments of open source solutions in UK schools, but they have tended to owe everything to the work of one or two enlightened individuals who have bucked the trend. Better known examples include Holmfirth School in Huddersfield and Parkhill Junior School in Essex.

Slow adoption of open source and free software in UK schools can be attributed to the same kind of inertia that afflicts SMEs in the UK. It arises from a fear of the unknown, misapprehensions of the capabilities of the software, over-reliance on trusted suppliers, and general lack of awareness of the alternatives - but the major obstacle has been a lack of coordination, direction or understanding from the relevant authorities, exacerbated by a series of agreements with Microsoft at government level that have effectively tied the education system into Microsoft-only solutions.

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This kind of inertia is in marked contrast to the more adventurous approach seen in many parts of the world, such as the well-publicised deployments of open source solutions in Brazil, Macedonia and Switzerland.

An idea that works

Clearly, cost is not the only important factor in providing computers for schools. In 1997, the Government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Microsoft for ICT in schools, which effectively locked the market into Microsoft solutions. This agreement has been renewed on a regular basis, and runs counter to later government statements on the adoption of open source in the public sector.

The UK government announced an apparently resolute policy on open source as far back as July 2002. The minister responsible, Douglas Alexander, declared that "this government is intent on securing the best value for money in its IT procurements by encouraging the development of a flourishing IT industry which supplies both proprietary and open source software [OSS] solutions to the public sector. Government procurement decisions will be based on the ability of the solutions to deliver effective and economic systems and services."

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In order to achieve these objectives, Alexander stated that the government would "consider open source software solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements, and award contracts on a value-for-money basis, seeking to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services," and "explore further using OSS as the default exploitation route for government-funded R&D software."

According to Alexander, the government's open source software policy was "formulated to embrace the fast-moving pace of the software industry and to acknowledge the clear potential of open source software to change the software infrastructure marketplace."

The statement also served the purpose of fulfilling the UK's obligations to the European Commission's "Action Plan for the initiative, Europe - An Information Society For All," which encouraged the European member states to "promote the use of open source software in the public sector". The European initiative was a dynamic effort to encourage cooperation between governments and to urge the adoption of open source and open standards as the default philosophies for software development.

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