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Mark Taylor

Written by staff at Sirius Corporation, the Open Source services group, this blog seeks to dispel any FUD around the use of Open Source software in the Enterprise and provide perspectives on business, economics, politics, philosophy and the environment.

Linux triumphs in UK schools as hell freezes over

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This post comes hard on the heels of an important piece of news... at least two Open Source companies have become part of the Becta's official list of suppliers to the education sector. The new procurement frame work under the aegis of the OGC relaunches the supply of ICT to education. The emphasis is clear: deliver value for money to UK schools.

It was not long ago that most commentators believed an Open Source company would join the likes of Capita, Serco and RM shortly after hell froze over. But times do change. In this case the driving force for change seems to be (we presume) the well-known cost-benefit values of Linux and other Open Source software.

It's the Economy Stupid

As usual it's all about money. The Open Source community has always advocated that schools in the UK adopted Free Open Source Software (FOSS) on the grounds that there were considerable cost savings to be had which would directly benefit schools and the taxpayer alike.

As long ago as 2005 a report from Becta strongly supported this assertion. However this was a time when huge amounts of a cash-rich Government's money were being poured into developing school ICT and value for money was not really on the agenda. As a result the incumbent proprietary vendors enjoyed a feeding frenzy and Open Source solutions were ignored. Indeed it was impossible, despite persistent lobbying, to get an Open Source company on the official school suppliers list. As I said, how times change. If we revisit school's ICT finances 2008 we see a different picture.

If you are a school fund-holder you can forget about long-gone ring-fenced ICT funding and generous e-learning credits; forget about BSF grants; forget about the massive refurbishment 'refresh' monies and try not to think about the few super-rich Academies. The UK Gov has run out of money for the continual 'improvements' in school ICT, and an impending recession is hardly likely to restore the coffers, but, and this comes as no surprise, it hasn't run out of ambition.

Given that there are no monies waiting to be showered on school ICT projects from the Treasury, then there are only two ways of funding government plans for ICT in schools now. These are: donations from a generous philanthropic third party multinational software giants or try to wrestle it back from the schools to whom the money has been devolved (and being no longer ring fenced could be spent on crayons if they liked).

The former route, the philanthropic donor, involves, the cynics may say, attempts to sell a slow selling operating system to new generation of children via several well publicised 'access' initiatives this year.

Indeed, the source of the funds for this week's announcement that all poor children will be given £700 to buy themselves a computer with broadband access is not clear. It may well be Treasury (ie taxpayers) money but it is rumoured to be 'philanthropic' in its origination. In any case, the generosity of putative donors is not the thesis of this article. What concerns me is the attempt to claw back devolved money from schools to support a model of ICT which is unsustainable and unsuitable for school's needs.

Yes, schools have all the money now; the budget was devolved to while ago, but unfortunately the Government wants it back to fund their grandiose schemes.

Enter the IT Managed Service Agreements. If you are a school Finance Officer and for some reason you are reading this article the mere mention of the phrase Managed Service Agreement (sorry I said it again) will cause you to reach for the sedative bottle. To cut to the chase, you should find that your IT budget has just gone up by a factor of two or three. If you are a Secondary School put aside a cool £300,000 to have your IT run by the LA in companion with your local friendly outsourcing giant who will decide what kit you use and what software you can have. If you thought Microsoft was good at locking you in you have seen nothing yet.

Forget any freedom to allocate resources as you think would meet the needs of you students, any money you have spare may just fund the electricity needed to run the latest behemoth computers; pay the software licence-fees or the wages of the small army of technicians needed to keep it all going.

How to hold two contradictory positions at once

Becta said it loudly nearly two years ago and they were right - the level of funding required by UK current ICT structures is unsustainable.

They weren't kidding then and as we prepare to hit the walls of a recession they sure are not kidding now. Moreover the cost of bidding for BSF and the squeeze on margins has caused the major UK ICT vendor to issue a profit warning. Schools can't afford to pay, the Government can't afford to pay and even the vendors are barely making a profit. Yet LA's are issuing compulsory 'refresh' agreements to state schools forcing them to spend on new ICT equipment and effectively coercing them into expensively outsourcing their ICT.

Forgive me for stating the obvious. The worms will at some point collectively turn. Will state schools be able to file for bankruptcy? There's a thought! In any case there will be a crisis just after a lot of taxpayer's money has been spent/wasted on a model of ICT in schools that is too costly, too slow, too complicated and too restrictive.

Let's call it the Computing-Crunch.

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