The ABC of open source in schools

Schools considering a move to open source face a tricky decision, but the momentum is on their side

It is rare to find someone sitting on the fence in the battle between open source software and its proprietary rivals. But Becta has managed this feat with a report that is unlikely to send staff rushing to delete Windows and Encarta from the school systems, but which should still have Microsoft worried.

Becta found that open source software can mean big cost savings — no surprise there — but cautioned that the dearth of programs built around the educational curriculum remains a major hurdle.

Microsoft pounced on the section describing teachers who refused to use StarOffice because it was "too inconvenient", and then stuck in its claws by claiming that Becta didn't look at enough schools to allow many far-reaching conclusions to be drawn.

So what are the nation's head-teachers to make of this? Some may fear mass revolt in the staff room if they move to Linux. Others could well be put off by the fear that pupils using open source desktops won't have the applications they need to shine.

Both would be big mistakes. Open source software has long provided a strong alternative for server operating systems. Schools are an ideal environment for them to recreate this success — stuffed as they are with bright young minds open to new ideas. Sir may not like getting to grips with a new word processing package (assuming he ever mastered MS Word in the first place), but a quick trip to the Natural History Museum should get him up to speed on the perils of failing to evolve.

But while Becta's report would have been better if it had included more schools — the small sample is handy ammunition for Microsoft's anti-Linux catapult — it is still another step on the road towards wider open source usage. Of course there are more education-related applications written for Windows today; there is a 15-year back-catalogue, after all. But things are opening up, as free and open source developers move up the value stack.

It's like we all learned in history. Man came out of the cave, tamed fired, cracked agriculture, formed great cities and ended up on the moon, all because people embraced new challenges. Content-specific applications are absolutely 'what's next' for open source, as shown in this sector by projects such as Schoolforge. Head-teachers who want to cut costs while giving their charges valuable experience of a wide range of software need to do their homework.