Schools must be open for business

With a budget of billions, schools have the power to create their own IT environment. Becta should make this its goal

Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man. It works for Jesuits — and for software companies. If you control the software in the education system, then generations of schoolkids will grow up knowing your products — an army of operators, specifiers and users programmed to your specification. And if that software is proprietary, that's as far as their knowledge and control will go.

This may not be for the best. Yet Becta, the government agency that sets education IT policy, seems keen to encourage it — it works according to the framework principle, which in best civil service tradition sets out approved suppliers who are easy to buy from. Go outside, and you're on your own.

The framework approach has a filtering effect: if you're not big enough to qualify, you can't benefit from it. That has a cooling effect on innovation and boosts companies with an interest in high profit-margin products. It wouldn't be so bad if being big and expensive implied being good and effective, but we have countless counterexamples.

Becta must pay attention to the part of its brief that says it is "to develop a national digital infrastructure and resources strategy leading to greater national coherence". Forcing a virtual monopoly of big business-specified proprietary software is hardly that, any more than microwaving ready meals from the supermarket is a catering strategy.

Let's be bold enough to imagine a future where schools are in charge of their own software, and can bring in whatever open components make the most sense. Commanding a budget of billions, they can afford to demand the open standards that make most sense for education — and create the development and support systems to make practical use of those standards. Money not spent on licence fees is money that can be spent on real benefits, after all.

The effects of such an approach will be widespread. By supporting domestic centres of excellence, local high-technology industry will be encouraged — and the products of that industry will find uses worldwide. By maintaining control of software, the education sector can match what it builds to a changing curriculum as effectively as possible, while promoting expertise with which to inform policy and strategy decisions at the highest level. We can think of several national figures who could do with a little more education in IT.

And the students can learn as much as they want. The true beauty of open-source software is that it is philosophically compatible with educational principles in a way that proprietary software can never match. That resonance between means and ends has many more implications than just saving money and making more effective software — but in the best pedagogic traditions, we'll leave those as an exercise to the reader.

As for creating an environment where such things can happen — that's an exercise for Becta to complete. It's a tough exam. Let's hope it qualifies.