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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.

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