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Software in Schools

As part of my move to Linux and Open Source, I have been getting more interested with the use of OSS in schools and the public sector recently, and am getting involved and campaigning wherever I can via my membership of the UKUUG and ManLug.

There is a lot of buzz around at the moment due to Becta’s new purchasing frameworks. In a nutshell, Becta is the government’s advisor on education related ICT issues. Part of that role involves making recommendations on software that should be used in schools for certain functions, an example of this would be the MIS (Management Information System) which schools use to keep a database of their students and other information relating to the day to day running of the school.

The current arguments stem from the new framework for learning platforms which are being brought in by Becta in 2007/8. These give recommendations to Schools and Local Government on products that are currently in the marketplace and which satisfy their criteria. The problem is that due to the stringent nature of their criteria, and the fact that Open Source products are not officially supported or financially backed by a large organisation, it means they were essentially excluded from the framework, and even the SME’s that have sprung up to support OSS software, all failed the criteria. This seems to go against Becta’s own research that shows that open source software could save schools up to 50% on their ICT budgets.

So even despite the fact that products such as Moodle are already being used in hundreds of schools and colleges around the country to improve the education of this country’s children, Moodle and the SME’s supporting them are simply too small, and cannot compete, meaning schools will have to either pay for a ‘Becta Approved’ platform, or continue using Moodle and ‘turn their back’ (Becta Quote) on the extra funding that is provided to schools who use the software that Becta recommend.

This learning platform framework has recently been officially announced and as expected, includes no open source software or SME’s. It is completely dominated by the huge UK IT suppliers such as Viglen, Research Machines, Pearson and Ramesys. Although despite only the massive suppliers making the list, I can safely say that I have never heard of any of the learning platforms that are being recommended from these organisations, which seems to me as if they don’t quite have the same reputation as Moodle.

In an effort to fight all of this ‘injustice’, an organisation called the Open Schools Alliance was formed with the support of the UKUUG to campaign to allow free and open source software into Becta’s framework. They had some very good publicity and managed to have an EDM placed into Parliament (EDM 179) by Lib Dem MP John Pugh, this has also managed to stir up some further publicity from news organisations such as The Register and ZDNet. I was contacted by the UKUUG who notified it’s members about the EDM and asked for help in persuading MPs to sign. In late November I wrote to my MP for Ashton-under-Lyne David Heyes asking him to sign the EDM and I received a very positive response.

The EDM has now reached the incredible figure of 109 signatures, which currently stands in 36’th place out of 615 EDM’s put forward by MPs, which is an amazing achievement. Congratulations go to Leslie Fletcher of the UKUUG and Open Schools Alliance, and to the other members of the OSA for their amazing work! Hopefully they can build on this momentum to force a policy chance at Becta.

I will certainly be keeping a close eye on the situation in the near-future and will continue to support in any way I can.

Jonathan

2 Comments

  1. Karl Orbell Karl Orbell

    Having worked in a school, both as an IT Manager and sort of as a teacher, I’d say that the students do really need to be trained in Microsoft Office primarily on a Windows-based system, as opposed to an open source alternative.

    The purpose of the IT education is to prepare them for exactly what they’ll encounter in outer world, particularly in business and that means the Microsoft platform – unfortunate though that may be.

    Whilst I’m a huge advocate of open source, I would not advocate using it for teaching at a school level. The main issue from the schools point of view is cost, particularly as students need to use Access to meet the curiculum requirements, which is not included in Student/Teacher packages and it should be. Microsoft should sort this out, and provide their software free to schools, and improve their student/teacher home offerings – that would take care of the problems.

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