Tom Watson MPThe schools open source community has welcomed the announcement by minister for digital engagement Tom Watson MP (left) of a change in ICT policy for the public sector to create a “level playing field” for open source.

Miles Berry, who runs the Open Source Schools website, funded by Becta, described the move as “a very positive step along the way to allowing the public sector to make the most of the adaptability and savings that open source offers”. “Tom Watson clearly has a lot of respect for open source development, and it's heartening that the minister for digital engagement recognises its contribution to a culture of innovation. I'm sure that, when judged fairly on the basis of value for money, open source solutions will stand up very favourably against proprietary alternatives, especially when the additional flexibility they offer is factored in.”

Miles BerryMiles Berry“I hope that the challenge the policy sets out for suppliers, to demonstrate a capability in open source and carefully consider open source alternatives, will apply to BSF ICT contracts too.

"It's good to see the policy's emphasis on open standards: proprietary protocols have made vendor lock-in far too easy, and the selection of interoperable best-of-breed far too difficult for far too long in the schools sector, as those who've contemplated integration of their various VLEs, MISs, library catalogues, calendars, timetables and accounts packages will have soon discovered.

“More exciting still is the acknowledgement that the principles that underpin open source development, such as collaboration, sharing and user involvement, have applications far beyond the realm of coding. The possibility that the digital resources that are created with public funds across the nation's schools and local authorities can at last be shared, re-used and further developed is a really inspiring one, and one which may be realised sooner rather than later with the launch of the national digital resources bank."

Tom Watson said that both government policy and the open source market were changing, and he outlined three aspects to the policy change: the adoption of open source software (with an action plan of 10 points, below and in full here); open standards to ensure systems are “inter-operable”; re-use – ensuring that successful implementations can be used anywhere else in the public sector without restriction.

ICT vendors will have to understand - and be able to offer - open source

There will now be an expectation that ICT vendors working in the public sector, and that includes schools and colleges, will fully understand the issues around the appropriate use of open source. And that they will consider its use along with (and presumably in some cases in place of) the technologies they would normally offer to school customers. Successful open-source implementations could be re-used in other setting wehere needed without the need for extra development costs.

If this expectation has teeth - and this is a moot point - then it will lead to changes in services for schools. Standard procurement procedures for schools and colleges have done little to realise the potential benefits of open source - despite the successes in Government highlighted by Tom Watson (see below). Achievements at school level tend to have come because of innovative approaches by individuals or groups with the necessary understanding and expertise.

The is no open source learning platform on the "approved" Becta list, and no official effort was made to support or even evaluate the virtual learning environment (VLE) which appears to be most popular among teachers - Moodle, which happens to be open source.

Nor is there a significant sign yet of the necessary commitment to and capacity for open source among key ICT providers for schools. As a result there is little evidence of open source adoption in the biggest school investments in the UK - Building Schools for the Future and the Primary Capital Programme. Tom Watson's announcement has the potential to start changing that.

Ian Lynch, an influential advocate of open source who uses the technology for his successful Ingots ICT courses, described the announcement as “a welcome reiteration of the government's pledge to exploit open source technologies on behalf of the tax payer. The biggest factor in increasing the pace of migration to open source is knowledge in the user space. We really need specific action drawing in that other government favourite, ‘Investors in people’. When ordinary users understand the benefits to them in the longer term they are much more likely to be accepting of change.

Industry reactions to the announcement varied. According to open source online news service The H, the response from Simon Phipps, chief open source officer, at Sun Microsystems (a company currently working with Bradford BSF schools) was pleasure with the policy update but disappointment that it didn’t go further. It quoted him as saying he is: "A little disappointed to see the loopholes in the area of open formats and I would have liked to have seen a timetable for the action plan. For this to succeed the government CIO needs to put an aggressive timetable in place". The H said that Simon Phipps wants the Government to move from "procurement led" buying to an "adoption-led market".

Phil HemmingsThe response from leading schools’ ICT supplier RM was a conditional welcome. Director of corporate affairs Phil Hemmings (left) said: “It’s clear that open source has a place in education; we’ve sold getting on for 50,000 RM Asus miniBooks. Those miniBooks will mainly be used for web browsing and productivity applications though, which is only part of what’s needed.

"Most of the software that teachers use in the classroom is still Windows or Mac applications – you can’t run Sibelius and 2Simple under open source yet. The direction of travel is clear though – everything is moving on to the web.

"When it comes down to it, it’ll be the market that decides, not policy makers. That decision will be about teachers and learners getting the applications they need, not about open source ideology."

'The lion's share of revenue for software licences goes out of this country'

The benefits for the public sector workforce and hard-pressed local economies were a key priority for Ian Lynch: “In these times of recession and even depression, what better way to stimulate the economy than training the public sector work force so they can become self-sufficient in technologies freely and legally available from the Internet? Superficially, some may argue that it will cost jobs in the software industry but since the lion's share of revenue for software licences goes out of this country it is more likely to produce a net gain in employment locally, stimulating local economies and transferring money that would otherwise go straight overseas."

More information

Examples of open source in Government provided by Tom Watson: "50 per cent of main departmental websites use Apache as their core web server; the NHS spine uses an open-source operating system; 35 per cent of NHS organisations covering almost 300,000 users, will soon be supported on Linux infrastructure; open source components are used in major systems such as Directgov and electronic vehicle licensing."
Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan

Tom Watson MP is a keynote speaker at the forthcoming Game Based Learning 2009 conference

Open Source Schools

Ian Lynch's ingots (International Grades - Open Technologies)

Article on The H

The 10 action points:
Clarity in procurement – new, open guidance;
Increasing capability within Government - a programme
of education and capability-building for the Government IT
and procurement professions;
Re-use as a practical principle - Learning from others. Where open source solutions are evaluated and approved by one part of Government, that evaluation should not be repeated but should be shared;
Maturity and sustainability - regularly assessment for maturity of products and creation of a list of a list of recommend products;
Supplier Challenge - Government departments will challenge suppliers to demonstrate capability in open source and that open source products have been actively considered in whole or as part of the business solution which they are proposing;
International examples and policies, and keeping up to date with developments – seeking out international and other examples, and engagement in developing policies across the EU and elsewhere;
Industry/Government joint working - the CIO Council will work with systems integrators and software suppliers to meet open standards, to include open source, and to facilitate re-use;
Open Standards - The Government will specify requirements by reference to open standards and require compliance where feasible (one that are spelt out are the use of Open Document Format (ISO/IEC 26300:2006) as well as emerging open versions of previously proprietary standards (eg ISO 19005-1:2005 (“PDF”) and ISO/IEC 29500 (“Office Open XML formats”). It will work to ensure that government information is available in open formats, and it will make this a required standard for government websites.
Open Source techniques and re-use within Government, and appropriate release of code - Government purchasers to be informed that solutions are purchased on the basis that they may be re-used elsewhere in the public sector (the government can secure full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of commercial off the shelf products it procures – and for re-use elsewhere);
Communication, Consultation and Review – the Government will communicate this policy and its associated actions widely and will expand it as necessary.