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Row erupts over schools open-source project

A key UK open-source figure has criticised the educational IT body Becta, after it puts a little-known consultancy in charge of a major schools project
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The UK's educational IT advisory body has awarded the contract for overseeing a schools open-source promotion project to a consultancy that appears to have little experience in open source, setting off an angry reaction from rival bidders.

On Friday, following Becta's decision to put The AlphaPlus Consultancy in charge of the Open Source Schools project, the chief executive of enterprise support company Sirius penned an open letter to Becta, accusing it of "political sleaze" and cronyism. The project aims to create a community of schools that use open-source software, to ease the sourcing and support of suitable software. The two-year contract is worth around £270,000.

"Today, Friday 13th, Becta's open-source posturing is exposed as a sham, empty spin covering 'business as usual' political sleaze," wrote Mark Taylor, who, in addition to his role as chief executive of Sirius, is the president of the Open Source Consortium. "Becta awarded their Open Source Schools project to establishment insiders and cronies, with no open-source credentials or capabilities, rather than organisations who could and would make the project work. The losers, as usual, are British schools, British schoolchildren and British taxpayers."

Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk on Friday, AlphaPlus's operations director, John Winkley, confirmed that his consultancy had worked with Becta before. He claimed he and his colleagues "do have experience working in [open source]" but admitted: "We don't claim to be specialists." He refused to comment on Taylor's letter as he said he had not yet read it, but said it was AlphaPlus' "intention to respond" to it.

Taylor's letter recapped the stated aims of the Open Source Schools project, which includes guidance on licensing issues and the provision of community seeding and support, online discussion forums, workshops and an online registry of open-source software and developers. It then listed the open source-centric organisations that had been invited to bid for the contract, calling them "a who's who of open source in the UK". These organisations include Sirius — which enjoys support from Red Hat, KDE and the Free Software Foundation — alongside OSS Watch, Schoolforge UK, Canonical, the Open Schools Alliance and others.

"But no, impeccable and proven open-source credentials, capability and community-building skills are apparently a hindrance to building a community of British schools using open source," Taylor wrote in the letter. "Being Becta insiders is what matters, insiders who have no track record in open source, do not even give it a passing mention on their website, and until yesterday were completely unknown to anyone in either the industry or community. Just handed a quarter-of-a-million pounds, Becta's friends are now responsible for the direction open source takes in British schools, entirely removed from the UK open-source community and industry."

Taylor went on to urge schools to ignore Becta and the project, adding: "Any of the organisations Becta rejected will be your best choice". It also called for an open source industry boycott of the project, claiming the project was "about jobs for the boys, spin, and discrediting non-proprietary software".

Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk on Friday, Taylor claimed AlphaPlus had already started calling around "precisely the people that Becta rejected", seeking help in the project. "So far, nobody has bitten," he said. "The community is saying this is ridiculous."

Responding to Taylor's letter, Becta issued a statement in which it says it had been "looking for an organisation with an excellent understanding of the use of software in schools and a knowledge of what all stakeholders in a school require".

"They also needed to demonstrate a good knowledge of the open-source community, open-source software products and marketplace," the statement continued. "They had to demonstrate that they could manage the challenges of a project of this nature, deliver key milestones on time and show that they had achieved similar work in the past. Finally, they were evaluated on value for money comparing their pricing with the deliverables they proposed."

In the statement, Becta said it had received "a strong set of responses from excellent organisations all of whom scored well in different areas". It added: "AlphaPlus came out on top overall but, as stated earlier, we anticipate that the nature of the work will mean that many parties in the education and open-source community will be involved in elements of the project delivery."

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