Is Becta loosening Microsoft's grip on UK schools?

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Becta's massive school database interoperability project (SIF) will create huge opportunities for Open Source software companies.

Hitherto, competition in the school's database market has been minimal due to schools being locked-in to proprietary, non-interoperable software normally based on Microsoft MS-SQL.

Capita-SIMS, the powerful and dominant schools database provider, has been instructed by Becta to comply with the new interoperability framework. This move potentially opens up a large and growing market to solutions based on Open Source databases such as MySQL and PostgreSQL.

However, identifying commercial opportunities has been made difficult by the culture of secrecy which surrounds all Government IT projects and the lack of transparency of the procurement frameworks operated by Becta.

For example, the controversial Unique Learner Number (ULN) database, itself part of SIF, goes live in September 2008 but little was known about the project. That the ULN is a massive database listing pupils' academic lifetime achievement, was well known. But the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) suppressed Deloittes' interim report on the project and consequently little else was known.

As a result, we submitted a freedom of information request (FOI) to the DCSF about the ULN database and a number of interesting insights emerged:

  • The cost of the ULN so far is £20.5 million, the database of choice is Oracle and the project is being implemented by Logica. The Government’s confidence that it will be 'rock-solid secure' presumably reflects the brand strengths of the database vendor and implementation partner rather than based on any empirical evidence.
  • The Unique Learner Number will not apply to students at Independent schools (unless they sign up to specific 16-19 Modules) and, in the future, registration will only be optional for Independent schools.
  • Students will be allowed to edit incorrect entries but not to delete entries.
  • All Local Authorities have been instructed to include ULN's in their databases for Autumn 2008.

Moving away from Microsoft SQL

The school database market has been a closed shop for many years. Products from Capita and Serco, both based on MS-SQL, account for well over 90% of market share. In the case of Capita-SIMS.net, not only does it use Microsoft SQL , requires schools to use MS Office 2003 and has a MS IIS web server but it also has a non-interoperable API.

Such technology lock-in has been a block to free and fair competition for many years. Now, as a result of the SIF project funded by Becta, interoperability means that the Open Source technologies such as PostgreSQL, MySQL, Apache and PHP can be used to compete for public business on a level playing field.

Interoperability does not favour Open Source or proprietary software one way or another. Logica are using Oracle for the ULN which is of course proprietary software. But what it does mean is that Open Source solutions can compete with proprietary solutions just as effectively as they do now in the business sector.

Procurement restriction

Whilst the SIF project opens up the database market in schools, albeit late in the day when the system has reached a near monopoly, Becta's procurement framework still remain a major obstacle to Open Source companies.

Becta's approved list of suppliers is still limited to a narrow clique of established ICT providers. Without real competition from agile, innovative newcomers UK schools will always be victims to inflated pricing and poor quality service.

Summary

The Unique Learner Number ascribed to all state-educated students represents the first project in a series of UK Government initiatives to integrate databases of personal data. Our FOI has shown how seriously industry exemplar standards are taken by the Government. Key to success in their endeavour is the term “interoperability” which carries the mandate that education database frameworks be able to exchange information in a standardised way.

The consequence is that the closed systems currently dominating school databases will open to competition. Free Open Source companies are well placed to offer effective solutions. The challenge is to push for open transparent processes for tender that will enable Open Source companies to transfer their success in industry to the Public Sector.