Goodbye Becta €“ and Good Riddance

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Not quite on the scale of cancelling the ID cards project, the news that Becta would be shut down was nonetheless further evidence of the coalition government's new broom whooshing into action.

Although there seems to be a wide range of views on whether this is a good or bad thing – see this post and its comments for a representative selection – for me Becta was pretty much an unmitigated disaster for free software in this country, and I'm glad to see it go.

I write not just as someone who has followed free software for 15 years, but as a parent. Never mind that schools almost without exception are stuffed to the gunwales with Microsoft's technology – including, unbelievably, Internet Explorer when it was still totally insecure.

What I find particularly outrageous is the fact that even today, some of the educational websites used by schools don't even work with Firefox, and that there is a presumption that parents have a copy of Microsoft Office at home (whether it was bought or “borrowed” from work doesn't seem to matter to IT departments much.) Most of the responsibility for this parlous state of affairs can be laid at the door of Becta.

I admit I was surprised to read that a decade ago Becta had some cognisance of free software:

I have fond memories of attending an excellent 'expert technology seminar' chaired by Dr Malcolm Herbert, then one of the Becta team, now at RedHat, back in 2000

That early hopeful sign makes Becta's decision to sign a three-year Memorandum of Understanding with Microsoft in December 2003 all-the-more incomprehensible. Worse, it seemed unaware of just what that lock-in meant until two years later, when it finally got around to considering whether such a Microsoft monoculture really was the best for schools:

The review will pay particular attention to Microsoft's subscription licensing models and the risks associated with non-perpetual licences. It will examine the total costs of exiting those licence agreements and the corresponding risks of 'lock-in'. If risks are found, the report will seek to identify mechanisms whereby schools and colleges could mitigate those risks and protect their investment.

Commenting specifically on alternatives to Microsoft's Office Productivity suite Owen Lynch added "I am particularly keen to ensure that where there are alternative products to those available from a dominant supplier, schools have easy access to them. We will explore with the industry whether in the case of products which are 'free' to the education sector it makes sense to reduce barriers to uptake by 'pre loading' such offerings."

As this indicates, Becta only began vaguely to consider the possibility of using free software in 2006. By this time, it was so far behind the times that the issue was literally being raised in Parliament with an Early Day Motion:

That this House congratulates the Open University and other schools, colleges and universities for utilising free and open source software to deliver cost-effective educational benefit not just for their own institutions but also the wider community; and expresses concern that Becta and the Department for Education and Skills, through the use of outdated purchasing frameworks, are effectively denying schools the option of benefiting from both free and open source software and the value and experience small and medium ICT companies could bring to the schools market.

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