MPs: Open source faces exclusion in schools

Parliamentary motion claims schools are being forced into buying proprietary software
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

A group of MPs have accused a government agency of restricting schools from deploying open-source software.

Nineteen MPs, led by former teacher John Pugh, are backing a parliamentary motion which claims that Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), the government's advisors on the use of ICT in education, is using outdated frameworks which exclude suppliers of open source software.

Schools are advised that they should purchase all ICT products and services through a Becta framework. The MPs claim that these frameworks are biased in favour of large software suppliers and discriminates against smaller software suppliers, such as open source developers.

The motion reads, "[This House] expresses concern that Becta and the Department for Education and Skills (DFES), through the use of outdated purchasing frameworks, are effectively denying schools the option of benefiting from both free and open source software." The motion also commends higher education establishments for their deployments of open source. Universities are not bound by Becta frameworks.

The group of MPs has won support from the Open Schools Alliance, a group of organisations which includes the Open Source Consortium, SchoolForge, FFII (Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure) and the UKUUG (UK Unix and Open Systems User Group).

Becta and the DFES said they "strongly rejected" the claims of the MPs. Releasing a joint statement to ZDNet UK, they said the issue of open source was one of "measured inclusion, rather than blanket exclusion".

"We work with software providers — both open source and proprietary. Becta supports the principles of open source software and recognises the value-for-money benefits that larger-scale deployment could bring," the statement read. Becta denied the allegations that its frameworks were outdated and warned, "Acceptance onto the framework is by the assessment of the capabilities of a supplier to deliver and support a comprehensive suite of technologies, and not by providing a single, specific product."

That statement could rule out a number of open source solutions, which are often provided by smaller suppliers.

Becta's stance toward open source has attracted controversy in the past. Last year it released a report indicating that considerable cost savings could be made by deploying open source. But research released in March of this year showed that Becta's database of 3,000 educational applications included just 18 that could run on Linux.

Its chairman, Andrew Pinder, has given mixed signals. Speaking at Oxford University's The Future of E-Learning event, Pinder said, "Typically [teachers who run IT] would be people who have a real passion about open source — as if open source is any different to any other software. It's just the pricing structure that's different, that's all. But they have a passion. It's a religion, it's a real belief, and again they have a belief about bits of technology that are going to change things. What they don't do, however, is organise things properly."

Becta is reaching the end of a three-year Memorandum of Understanding with Microsoft for the provision of its software to schools. The MoU expires in a month's time, at the end of December. Becta had planned to produce a report on the partnership in June, but that report now looks likely to be released in January. Becta says the delay is due to the prolonged wait for Vista.

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