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Building IT Infrastructure in UK Schools ~ by Ian Lynch
Friday, October 28 2005 @ 12:35 AM EDT

Building IT Infrastructure in UK Schools,
a National Strategy
~by Ian Lynch

BECTA (British Education Communication Technology Agency), is the UK agency in charge of defining IT policy for all schools in the United Kingdom. Among other things, they define standards for infrastructure for all the schools in the country.

BECTA's research into the Total Cost of Ownership of IT in schools showed significant savings by the early adopters of open source software. You can read the full report [PDF] for yourself.

Since then, BECTA has taken a much greater corporate interest in open source and open standards issues. While the organisation will probably claim to have always supported open standards for interoperability the profile and emphasis on these issues has certainly never been higher.

They recently published a comprehensive document [PDF] describing the policy for infrastructure in schools:

In the new policy, schools are mandated to use software that saves files in open formats (see pages 25 and 26). The list of formats allowed is:

For text documents: OpenDocument (.odt), plain text, RTF.
Forspreadsheets: OpenDocument (.ods), CSV.
For databases: OpenDocument (.odb), CSV.
For presentations: OpenDocument (.odp), HTML, SMIL.

As you can see, the OpenDocument format is in the list, and the Microsoft .doc and MS XML formats are not. BECTA comments on this decision:

Any office application used by institutions must be able to be saved to (and so viewed by others) using a commonly agreed format that ensures an institution is not locked into using specific software. The main aim is for all office based applications to provide functionality to meet the specifications described here (whether licensed software, open source or unlicensed freeware) and thus many application providers could supply the educational institution ICT market.

Though the recognition of open standards is very welcome news, this new policy doesn't mean that all schools using MS Office will have to switch. Since MS Office can save in plain text and RTF formats, it does comply with BECTA's policy. However 2.0 and Star Office 8 are the only two applications that currently comply with BECTA's policy with their standard native format. If nothing else, this adds weight to the argument that large customers like the British Government are asking for OpenDocument support, even if they haven't yet written a letter to Microsoft to spell it out. Microsoft's claim that there is no customer demand for OpenDocument looks less tenable with every day that passes. Indeed, an on-line petition for Microsoft to support ODF has already gathered more than 5,000 signatures representing over 160,000 computers.

One of the reasons that BECTA is putting together these policies on infrastructure is that the UK government is just embarking on the biggest school building project in history. The intention is to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools in the country over a 15 year period. The initiative is called Building Schools for the Future (BSF). BSF involves 3 partners. A central government agency called Partnership for Schools, the Local Education Authority and a private contractor. The private contractor will also take responsibility for managing the school's IT services and infrastructure. To give an idea of the money involved, an average sized secondary school will get about 1.5m ($2.7m) for IT equipment and infrastructure and about 60,000 ($106,000) per year to keep it maintained and up-dated. Those bidding for contracts have to specify what they will provide and ensure it conforms to BECTA standards.

Now the capital start-up costs are quite generous. A lot of networking, computers and peripherals can be installed for 1.5m but running a large installation with all upgrades for 60k per year might not be quite so straightforward. This money has to pay for all software upgrades, hardware replacements and technical support. The idea is that if a whole local authority is supplied by one large service provider with centralised server farms there will be an economy of scale that will reduce costs and individual schools will simply use a service they no longer have to worry about maintaining. This is the realm of large companies. It costs a 6-figure sum just to get into the competition for these contracts and there is considerable risk. If a company wins the contract by saying it will provide a 1:1 pupil computer ratio it will have to do so. This is where open source could make a company much more competitive.

  • Microsoft Schools Agreement could swallow up almost half the 60k budget on its own.

  • If you buy 1000 PCs, the OEM operating system costs will be more than the annual refresh budget by themselves.

  • Managing 1000 fat clients running Windows is likely to need 60k in support staff.

The budgets are not long-term sustainable on the current models. One solution would be a mixed economy with thin clients running open source productivity tools for general purpose use and fewer fat clients running the specialist proprietary educational software for which there are currently no open source equivalents. The problem with this is that bidding contractors need to propose such a model and few of them have this sort of experience, particularly not in the education environment. The downside of centralised provision and shutting out small companies is that you lose innovation.

One ray of hope would be for partnerships between small expert companies sub-contracting to the large contract winners. The barrier is in getting contact between the relevant players. The Open Source Consortium was set up to enable small open source specialists to group together to work on government contracts. If the OSC can establish partnerships with the large contracting companies it is possible to help make those companies more competitive in the bidding process and ensure that open source strategies have a role to play in improving the value for money provided by school IT infrastructure.

BECTA has taken a positive step by defining an infrastructure that does not shut open source out and emphasizes open standards. All we need now is to make the links between the people with the appropriate expertise and those with the market muscle to enable open source solutions to compete on an even footing with the currently entrenched systems.

Ian Lynch is a founding member of OpenDocument Fellowship and the official point of contact between BECTA and the Open Source community. He has extensive experience leading school inspection teams and working in the field of education technology.


Building IT Infrastructure in UK Schools ~ by Ian Lynch | 119 comments | Create New Account
Comments belong to whoever posts them. Please notify us of inappropriate comments.
corrections here
Authored by: webster on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 01:04 AM EDT
..but i didn't see any.

>>>>>>> LN 3.0 >>>>>>>>>

[ Reply to This | # ]

Managing 1000 fat clients for 60k in support staff?
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 01:17 AM EDT
This number seems low. I work in a similar environment with 1000 MS fat clients
and the support costs are at least five times that number.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Off-topic here
Authored by: Mike Steele on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 01:20 AM EDT
Let your mind wander ...


[ Reply to This | # ]

Building IT Infrastructure in UK Schools ~ by Ian Lynch
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 02:26 AM EDT
This article is very timely indeed.
This week, the British PM(aka Tony Blair) made one of his famous "U"
turns in Education policy. He stated that all secondary schoold would become
independant of the Local Education Authorities(in US terms, something akin to
the School District Board). This returns the policy to pretty much what it was
in 1997 when this sham of a government came to power and abolished "Grant
Maintained Schools" which, the new schools trusts are in everything but

However, there was something more significant buried in the announcement that
gives me the shivvers.
Blair announced that the company run by his old mate/chum/buddy BillyG from
Redmond was going to become heavily involved in the new Schools.
IMHO, this can mean only one thing. Microsoft wants to stop and Free/Open Source
software from being used in UK Schools and the sorts of things proposed by this
article are pretty likely to be swept away by some central government edict very
I don't have any children but my neighbours are already using Word, Excel &
Powerpoint. Unless we can stop this then the children of the UK will only know
how to use Microsoft products when they leave school which is very sad indeed.

Slightly off topic,
BG himself was interviewed on UK TV program "News at Ten" last night.
For a 50 year old, he looked a lot older than that(more like 70). His face was
very wrinkled and lined. The boyish/fresh complection of yesteryear is long
gone.I only caught the last 20 seconds so if any other Groklaw reader saw the
whole thing and wants to summarise it here I am sure the rest of the Groklawians
would appreciate it.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Building IT Infrastructure in UK Schools ~ by Ian Lynch
Authored by: blacklight on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 02:47 AM EDT
Back in 2000, I was told - actually, ordered - to take the lead in giving
technical interviews to my then employer's prospective candidates. My two-man
staff was none too happy about being partially pulled from their own resume
building activities, but hey: if I have to go through this garbage, so do they!

We would screen 100 resumes per week from individuals who were claiming
familiarity with Microsoft technologies, of which 90 were packs of lies. I was
ordered once to interview a candidate that my staff and I had screened out. When
the candidate showed up, the first question I asked him was: "You wrote
that you are supervising 600 computers. Are you doing that by yourself?"
And the interview went downhill from there.

Fast forward to right now: one of my fellow Cisco VOIP students is an individual
with a Cisco CCNP who can't provision either an Ethernet or serial interface
with an IP address unless I spell out to him how to do it and then troubleshoot
all the entries he has misconfigured. He is making $50 an hour as a Cisco router
consultant trying to understand the things that I forgot, he has brought his RH
workbook to class and rhapsodizing about Linux - as an Open Source guy, I just
want to puke. I keep telling myself that I don't deserve this kind of cosmic
injustice, but it just doesn't work. The bad taste in the mouth is still

[ Reply to This | # ]

What does BECTA cover?
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 03:21 AM EDT
Does BECTA cover Scottish schools as well (as we have a different education
system to England & Wales)?

[ Reply to This | # ]

The teachers need teaching ...
Authored by: mikeprotts on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 04:29 AM EDT
Many teachers in the UK lack any real education in the use of computers, or the
use of computers in education (very different).

I have worked (as a governor) with some teachers in a primary school who were
having kit dumped on them and were expected to just be able to use it
appropriately. One of my main suggestions was to stop spending on technology,
and start spending on training the staff on using what was already available.

The computer in school should be considered in the same way as a pen & paper
- it's a tool to help reading/writing/drwaing/data manipulation which can make
life easier. It often suprises people that using a computer gives great benefit
to arts subjects as well as sciences.

If people realised that it is how computers are used that is important, rather
than the specifics of any particular application, then it would be much easier
to get the message across that teh OS and specific application is irrelevant.

I would hope that initially the switch to OpenOffice would be started sooner
rather than later - that way the existing MS Windows systems could become more
useful (without having the hassles of configering Linux for dumb Windows
printers). Once the 'but I need Office' argument can be put to rest, then other
barriers can follow.


[ Reply to This | # ]

Building IT Infrastructure in UK Schools ~ by Ian Lynch
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 05:58 AM EDT
This is good news as the cost of software and the frantic way that the Public
Sector in the UK dump old equipment has worried me for a while.

The problem with BSF is that it will favour big corporate monoliths as the
article points out.

What we need is someone to put together a free software package and promote as a
partner with a hardware supplier (thin client would be good). Also, if we can
get the message that they don't have to throw old stuff away to get
functionality that would be great for everyone else.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 07:21 AM EDT
"Though the recognition of open standards is very welcome news, this new
policy doesn't mean that all schools using MS Office will have to switch. Since
MS Office can save in plain text and RTF formats, it does comply with BECTA's

I guess the question I have is which version of Microsoft RTF is really

[ Reply to This | # ]

  • RTF - Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, October 29 2005 @ 12:38 PM EDT
Building IT Infrastructure in UK Schools ~ by Ian Lynch
Authored by: ledow on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 08:02 AM EDT
It sounds absolutely gorgeous in theory. The fact is that the MS monopoly is
not the only one in UK schools (I make a living working freelance in six schools
managing their IT so I have some insight here). RM (Research Machines) are
almost exclusively the only supplier to most schools/boroughs. RM only sell RM
kit (bog standard stuff with things like a 50p cable to bring a headphone socket
out the front but cost twice what you'd pay on a decent mail order shop) and
will only support RM software.

They put pressure on software developers to support "their" systems
(which include things like: MSI's that have to be tuned to very specific
constraints, things such as broken shortcuts, unusual filenames, certain drive
mappings etc.; a customised version of Microsoft Word called Talking First Word
which is basically Word + macros + talking wizard character, requires a Word
license PLUS Talking First Word licenses.) There's much more, to put it simply,
NOTHING is standard. It may USE group policies, MSI's etc. but it's all hidden
away behind horribly ineffecient and buggy interfaces and the slightest change
can screw stuff up.

I've personally helped two schools migrate from RM to other companies (anything
*but* RM basically) but OS will never get a look in at the Operating System or
the main software level without massive changes borough-wide, certainly not
outside of "beacon" schools or schools with the resources and guts to
support themsevles. RM and Microsoft will resist this at every move.

I'm actually migrating schools to plain MS systems at the moment so that
administration is as easy as possible - Windows, Group Policies, Ghost images of
disks, Office. It's nothing like I would want, being a Linux zealot myself, but
it's a million times better than what they have and, believe it or not, cheaper
and easier to manage. Teachers are just pleased to have something that works
without any strange quirks. The kids are using standard Windows and Office
which they already have at home so they can get stuff done at home too.

Boroughs are being pressured into using a single supplier, normally RM, and some
of the tactics in use would make you cringe (e.g. a primary school ICT
co-ordinator having three hours of forced, uninvited meeting with three or four
very forceful and apparently deaf RM salesmen and the local borough IT guy (RM
sell-out), during the teacher's precious non-contact time when you mention
upgrading to anybody other than RM).

I'm starting to introduce OS in some of the schools which have become fed up
with RM and Microsoft (being fed up of both is EXTREMELY rare), things like
kiosks in receptions scrolling the school website, things like little science
kiosks running the electronic microscopes, digital cameras etc. without the need
for high-power computers with expensive Operating System licenses (KNOPPIX is a
life-saver here).

A move from Office would be resisted at every level, even with BECTA's approval
and the individual boroughs are likely to block such moves (things like Target
Tracker, a piece of administration software for many schools in Essex/London
which *requires* Excel, things like SIMS.NET which is used in every school I
work in to track attendance and pupil data, the list goes on...)

I would LOVE to be able to move any of my schools to OS but as it stands I am
ecstatic and would work free hours for any school which decides to go non-RM let
alone non-Microsoft, just to show my gratitude and make sure everything goes
smoothly. There's nothing stopping schools installing OpenOffice or similar on
their RM systems (not that I know of, but they're finicking systems) but it just
won't happen without MAJOR and I mean MAJOR culture change (i.e. everyone starts
ditching MS Office at home, on bundled computers etc.)

[ Reply to This | # ]

A big attraction of open source for schools.
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 08:58 AM EDT
A big attraction of open source for schools is that schools can provde
freely installable software cost free on CDs which children can take home to
help with their homework/coursework, and to learn on at home.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Eat your own dogfood (re: Microsoft Word)
Authored by: ahz on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 09:06 AM EDT
They recently published a comprehensive document [PDF] describing the policy for infrastructure in schools:

This report was made with Microsoft Word.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Red Hat, Novell, Sun Road Show
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 10:09 AM EDT
Surely it would make sense for a joint effort by the OS big players to have a
"Road Show", highlighting to schools, the alternatives to M$ software.
As a teaching aid the benefits of OS are enormous.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Get in at the start
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 10:54 AM EDT
Most new schools or schools being refurbished are done as part of a PPP
partnership, whatever we may think of the sense of those ideas. These contracts
usually involve the supply and maintenance of these systems and they tend to go
for the most reliable suppliers. After all these companies will make their money
if they have as little (unchargeable) hassle as possible so offloading this
problem to someone else makes a lot of sense. Whats needed is not roadshows or
other such pulls, but to get in with these contractors and convince them of the

We also have to seperate out what we the aims of such a policy are - do we
educate the kids about OS (not really interested until secondary stage, I would
guess for the most part) or just the organisation - the school itself.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Infrastructure in UK Schools... and courage is talking hold
Authored by: clark_kent on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 11:40 AM EDT
I guess the biggest news in England about Microsoft is with Wembley Stadium, not the schools.

But I had this feeling, that if the OpenDocument momentum gained in England, this Wembley Stadium partnership would become an island for Microsoft, not a distribution point since Microsoft is (currently) against implementing native support for OpenDocument in MS Office.

But something has changed in the computer market lately, because a lot of what normally happens to a non-Microsoft standard is just not happening. And it is not being rejected like so many non-Microsoft standards in the past have, but are being aggressively adopted. It is like a wall has fallen. It is like courage has taken hold in the hearts of politicians, presidents, managers, tech admins, and tech support. We are becoming less and less afraid of Microsoft, standing up to them instead of being walked over by them. We have a long way to go yet, but I am encouraged at what I am seeing. Freedom and liberation is at hand.

[ Reply to This | # ]

RM and the British Educational Establishment
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 12:18 PM EDT

Any teachers and educationalists are welcome. I just won't be that friendly.

I've put in quite a few networks and systems but of course from the BRITISH educational point of view I'm just a nobody.

I'm to be discouraged because I might understand Tech and of course that is ANTI-Intellectual.

Teachers in the UK, (until they prove otherwise) would rather teach you to clean someone's shit from the toilet or apologise than understand why a network doesn't work or politics.

Research Machines (RM)are the biggest sellers into the British education system and if you think that their "understanding computers" educational system is advantagous to the UK maybe you should get educated in the nearest Madrasa.

RM make me "PUKE" with their servile attitude to the "American Emperor" and RM who are the biggest suppliers to the UK educational establishment offer no altanative resources.

Personally, I think that their MD sucks Bill's toe each night but I have the bigger problem that maybe Research Machines are selling the UK into the USA and Bill's empire.

Are they are doing our kids an amazing disservice to suit their own paychecks?

PS. RM In case your thinking of making an arguement you better start off at 100,000 pa.

or do you only pay 15,000 for monkeys and 20,000 for someone who'd do their own mother?

I'm nearly 60 but the second world war was Hitler's tea party.

Brian S.

[ Reply to This | # ]

The hardest thing to comply with...
Authored by: GLJason on Friday, October 28 2005 @ 03:14 PM EDT
... is the ".odb" or ".csv" for databases. Hopefully this will except actual
databases like may be in place with server applications such as MySQL or SQL
Server. How many custom Access applications are out there in use by the schools

[ Reply to This | # ]

Saving as CSV
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, October 30 2005 @ 05:25 AM EST
Although the article mentions that Word/Excel is not excluded as they can save in text/rtf/csv, isn't this irrelevant!
How can you usefully save a complex document or a multi-sheet spreadsheet in these formats without some loss of info.

Take for example a simple OO spreadsheet. Save that as a csv document and you lose all formulae leaving cells with only the results of the calculation. Great to send results to your PHB, but absolutely useless if you need to reopen the document and update it with new data.

Hopefully BECTA has the clout to push schools into using ODF and indirectly encouraging the use of OO/SO. I only wish that companies had sense to look at the direction MS is leading them to and decide that now is the time to regain control of their own documents.

My biggest fear is that despite MS's fud over ODF, eventually they are bound to "respond to their customers wishes" by supporting ODF in its current format. Then as soon as the hubbub dies down, extend the format and retighten the noose again.

Personally I switched to SO/OO on SuSE years ago. I've paid MS as much as they will ever get from me.


PJ: Thank you for your work and the superb coverage of the cases relating to OSS.

[ Reply to This | # ]

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