As the government's advisory body for IT in schools, Becta has a challenging role balancing the needs of Westminster, local authorities, schools, teachers and pupils, while negotiating huge contracts with some of the world's biggest suppliers.
At the centre of this tangled web is Stephen Lucey, Becta's executive director of strategic technologies. In an exclusive interview with ZDNet UK, Lucey explained how Becta (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) intends to tackle the commercial interests of Microsoft and how it may finally be warming to open source.
Q: Becta caused a stir in January when it argued publicly that schools currently should not deploy either Vista or Microsoft Office 2007. Why did you issue such a statement?
A: Our view on Microsoft Vista and Office  is that currently we do not see a very strong business case to deploy [either] in terms of educational value. They do not represent good value for money in terms of the costs of implementation.
Becta also claimed in January that there are six valid alternatives to Microsoft Office that schools should consider: Open Office, WordPerfect Office, Star Office, Lotus SmartSuite, One SE and EasyOffice. But you say each of these provides only about half the features of Office 2007. In that case, how can you recommend them?
The majority of functionality is not used in schools' typical use. But if schools make use of the additional functionality in Office 2007 then it is a decision for them.
How many of these six alternatives would you like ideally to be offered to schools?
We would like to see these products be freely available. We would like open source to be available as part of the package.
What about Vista, which was launched to consumers earlier this week? You say you're not recommending that at the present time, either. Will you include either Vista or Office 2007 within the Becta frameworks that schools purchase from?
Software is available in the Becta frameworks when it's released. Any Microsoft product is available. Individual schools need to make their own assessment.
Presumably Microsoft, as the largest software company in the world, is your biggest focus at the moment? You have just renewed your three-year memorandum of understanding (MoU) with a smaller 12-month MoU with the company.
Our main focus is to achieve a positive outcome in issues raised in the reports. There is a significant amount of work to do, which is why we extended the MoU for another 12 months.
What sort of discounts are you achieving for schools through your negotiations with Microsoft?
It varies according to product, but it is between 20 percent and 37 percent over and above existing educational discounts.
With all the competing alternatives to Microsoft software — some of which you have described — are you managing to negotiate better discounts from Microsoft?
I'd like to see still further competition in the marketplace that will drive improved value for money.
Do you have any other goals in your negotiations with Microsoft?
We would like to reduce the complexity of licensing arrangements. Because of complexity, schools are making the wrong licensing decisions. There are perpetual licences and subscription licences, and there is potential for lock-in [to subscription licences]. Schools are not being aware of the cost [of changing from subscription to perpetual licences]. There is a lot of work for Microsoft to simplify going forward.
On the subject of subscription licences, schools have in the past been paying a far higher multiple of their annual subscription to purchase a perpetual licence than businesses have.
As part of our discussions as we were developing the report, we recognised the need for Microsoft to adapt their approach in that area. The multiple has been reduced, but it is not yet far enough. We are starting to bring education in line with others [vertical sectors].
Becta originally planned to report on licensing issues in January, but now its reports on licensing, Vista and Office 2007 are being labelled as 'interim' reports, with final versions slated for January 2008. What has caused the delay?
The whole licensing area is very complex and we have not yet reached a conclusion on issues. We wanted to ensure solutions were not a quick fix and that the licensing arrangements going forward are substantial and appropriate for the coming years. We hope to make good progress with Microsoft over the coming months. If we can release the reports early, we will do.
Have your reports been delayed by Microsoft's own product delays?
We had to wait for the release version [of Vista, Office 2007]. We couldn't report without that.
The nature of Becta's policy towards open source is not clear. While Becta published a report that seemed to back it, many industry critics say you favour large, proprietary suppliers. Could you clarify Becta's position?
There are some very viable open-source offerings for schools. Cost savings can be achieved with appropriate deployments. Becta is leading a single sign-on service for learners [pupils], called the UK Access Federation, so that individual learners can access all their resources with a single username. That's open source and will be rolled out across the whole of education. That demonstrates that for products that are applicable, we are very supportive of open-source implementations.
Some of your fiercest critics have been MPs. No fewer than 126 MPs have now signed an early day motion written by John Pugh MP saying that Becta is effectively denying schools the chance to buy open-source software. How do you react to that motion?
When suppliers come forward, we make no specifications: they can be proprietary or open source. We are judging them on their ability to deliver an offering. Some come forward with proprietary, some come forward with open source. If a supplier is good enough, then we are happy to include [it].
Have you discussed the matter with John Pugh?
John Pugh has not been in contact with us. We would more than welcome [the opportunity] to discuss this with John Pugh if he would like to contact us.
A few eyebrows were raised when you revealed your 10-strong shortlist for the provision of learning platforms. There were no providers of open-source software in there. Why?
A learning platform is a range of products, so we were looking for the ability of a supplier to be able to pull together a solution. It was product-agnostic. Suppliers need a range of skills to offer support over a period of time. Some suppliers came forward with open source as part of their offering. Those  were the suppliers who met the criteria. Those who weren't awarded didn't meet the criteria.
John Pugh is supportive of an open-source platform called Moodle. He is annoyed that schools can't procure products like that.
It's a very widely and successfully deployed product. It is available [through the frameworks]. It is up to schools or local authorities to specify functionality. It is up to suppliers to come forward with products that meet that need.
The other accusation from the MPs is that Becta is favouring large suppliers with "outdated purchasing frameworks". Is that true?
We have been running frameworks for many years, but they are updated by feedback from suppliers and schools. We are looking for suppliers that are profitable and stable. They need not be large. There is a good track record of small and medium enterprises coming through frameworks successfully.