Gary Clawson urges BETT-goers to consider cost-cutting procurement using Open Source
After years of unprecedented investment in ICT in schools we face several years of budget reductions. Local authorities and their schools now feel that current levels of provision cannot be sustained but, providing we change how we implement, these reductions in funding could be one of the most positive things that has ever happened to ICT development in our schools.
Years of generous funding have not led to universally successful ICT in our schools. In terms of value for money we have witnessed some of the most wasteful practice in ICT spending ever seen in any country. Here are a few:
- More than £400 million was invested in Curriculum Online which has resulted in schools being left with simply a host of invoices for annually licensed software and no further direct funding to pay them
- Nearly £300 million invested in BBC Jam – some of which were excellent digital resources which will probably never see the light of day because they were halted by commercial content providers claiming unfair competition while receiving twice as much funding to subsidise their own activities.
- More than 30 learning platform products with very little interoperability between them, all acting as extra barriers to schools who want to share their educational resources.
- A near monopoly of school administration systems based on a classic example of ‘closed’ standards.
- Practically every Building Schools for the Future development stymies innovative schools through the implementation of products that are based on existing mediocrity.
- And let’s not forget New Opportunities Fund (NOF) training, an early failure in continuing professional development that cost a mere £230 million!
We’ve achieved so little with so much, but what we must not do is to equate a future of reduced funding with one of reduced ICT delivery. We really can deliver more with less, but in order to do so we must do things very differently and we must start to lead our own implementation planning rather than being driven by poorly thought out funding streams.
The strongest asset we have is that we exist as a community of educationists and we have a common wish to have each school equally successful in its implementation of ICT. We have been divided solely by funding distribution and procurement processes. If we accept that we don’t need to have competing solutions then we reach the logical conclusion that we should have a number of common solutions for schools that deliver the same core functionality yet allow differentiation of use and the freedom to innovate within and around those applications. Such solutions exist as Open Source developments.
Government finally starts to level the playing field for Open Source
Imagine if five years ago we had had spent some of the original £30 million given for learning platforms on a single, national learning platform and released it as Open Source to the commercial sector for new developments. The sad fact is that we already had that core product – Moodle – implemented by several local authorities such as Cumbria and Lancashire (CLEO), Buckinghamshire and Stockport.
The use of an Open Source ‘core’ would have reduced the cost and risk of development for all commercial providers and enabled them to more freely innovate around a platform that had the inherent capability for every teaching material on every school platform to be shared across all schools. In turn enabling digital resource developers to create only one version of their curriculum resources, reduce their own costs, and reduce costs for every UK school.
Aren’t most aspects of content filtering, school administration and even digital resources supporting the curriculum also common to most schools? So why the need to have funding policy that supports the development of a myriad of solutions and then invent costly and long-winded procurement frameworks to assist in making a choice that should never have existed.
On February 24 2009 the then minister for digital engagement, Tom Watson MP, finally moved the UK forward in terms of recognising the role of Open Source: “By levelling the playing field and allowing Open Source to be as competitive as possible we can ensure that taxpayers get maximum value for money from Government IT, something that is more important than ever during the worldwide financial climate.”
The use of Open Source applications is a potential that remains untapped in all but a very few countries. For example, in December 2007 the Netherlands legislated that by 2009 ALL government departments that still use proprietary software instead of Open Source must provide their reasons for maintaining it. If the UK is leading in ICT in education, then it is also its inability to exploit Open Source that marks it out for attention. This fact has been recognised by all our major political parties, and that recent recognition has been entirely driven by economic concerns. It is time to translate this into large-scale implementation for exactly these reasons.
The Open Source Councils Alliance now includes 50 authorities
There are many examples of how we could have common, core ICT functions such as learning platforms or content filtering for all of our schools and how they can deliver major licence and product cost savings as well as enable commercial innovation to take place, openly and competitively. We are simply lacking the political and organisational structure that many other countries have to implement Open Source. We have to put that in place now if we are to avoid unhelpful ICT budget cuts resulting in ICT in our schools going backwards over the next few years.
The recent formation of OSCA (Open Source Councils Alliance) offers considerable hope for reducing costs without damaging ICT provision in our schools. OSCA is a partnership that has now grown from the 17 authorities within the regional body, the North West Learning Grid, to around 50 members.
These councils have decided that, in order to share risk and implement Open Source within local government, you need to have cost benefits analysis and implementation planning as shared collaborative activities. Open Source projects also require commercial partnership, and Becta’s only accredited Open Source Supplier, SIRIUS Corporation, is providing advice on which products could be adopted for widespread use and on the sort of capacity Open Source support companies have in place.
Ten percent public sector savings ‘realistic' with Open Source
How much will the OSCA partnership save in order to justify adoption of Open Source as the best thing to come out of public sector constraints? Frankly we don’t know yet, but the target of saving 10 per cent of current ICT costs appears to be more than realistic.
OSCA also offers much hope for forming a genuine community of educationists who will continue to seek ways to take ICT forward by sharing the cost of future developments and enabling the development of assets that will actually belong to schools. We not only have the opportunity to reduce costs but also to replace the offerings of variable quality that we currently only rent at great, unsustainable expense from suppliers.
We can do this through the creation of long-term public sector assets. The response to forthcoming budget cuts is not to reduce staffing or facilities; it is to think smart, work together and implement licence-free collaborative solutions. It’s now time to implement Open Source.
Gary Clawson is the chief executive of the North West Grid for Learning
- OSCA started as an initiative of the North West Learning Grid, a group of 17 local authorities, and within two months has become a group of nearly 50 from all around the United Kingdom.
- The main objective of the partnership is to produce a number of cost benefits analyses and implementation plans for Open Source developments that would generate savings from current ICT expenditure.
- OSCA members recognise that by working together they dramatically reduce the risk of implementing new Open Source solutions.
- OSCA will also ensure that strong and sustainable development partnerships are formed around key products that will become core assets for every UK school.
- OSCA is open to any UK local authority that wishes to share the effort of assessing the viability of Open Source implementation and wishes to share the expertise, experience and outcomes of national collaboration around Open Source.
You can find out more about open source from a number of sources at the BETT show. Key contacts are listed below but also check out the list of suppliers at:
North West Learning Grid
Open Source for Schools/OFE
Synetrix Ltd (Moodle hosting – Moodledo)
Learn4Life video footage of Gary Clawson at the Open Source Schools Conference 2009