Building IT Infrastructure in UK Schools,
~by Ian Lynch
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
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.
||OpenDocument (.ods), CSV.
||OpenDocument (.odb), CSV.
||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:
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
OpenOffice.org 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
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 www.opensourceconsortium.org
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
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