Learning platforms and Microsoft 'Office' targeted for schools ICT savings
Gary ClawsonGary ClawsonA local authority with 20 secondary and 120 primary schools could save up to £1.4 million a year by implementing a policy of open source software and content, and local authorities could cut their ICT costs by between 25 and 35 per cent according to Gary Clawson, chief executive of the North West Learning Grid.

His new report, "Open Services – Sustainable ICT for UK Schools", which includes contributions from John Bidder (Bolton Metropolitan Council), Mark Ellis (Wirral Borough Council) and Andrew Wild (Manchester City Council), reckons that the average secondary school can save £35,020 a year, and a primary school £6,300.

They could do this by targeting three areas: learning platforms and digital resources (£15,500 secondary, £3,100 primary; desktop software/hardware (£11,520 secondary, £1,700 primary); administration systems (£8,000 secondary, £1,500 primary). (Sums are based on school funding data from the British Educational Suppliers Association.)

The action plan he suggests is a technology audit that specifically targets commercial learning platforms (to be replaced by Moodle and the National Digital Resources Bank) and Microsoft's Office ("you do not need it on the curriculum desktop, most of your students use Open Office at home") and would replace existing desktop software with Edubuntu.

Capital grants for ICT over 13 years have 'distorted' service provision

The report claims that years of state support has skewed relationships between schools and suppliers, and that cutbacks will require a radical rethink. Its executive summary states: "With reductions in the Harnessing Technology Grant, local authorities and schools will need to rapidly reduce the cost of ICT provision. The use of capital grants for the last 13 years has led to a distortion of how services are provided and a distortion in the way UK suppliers provide services to exploit the availability of these ICT grants. Through the use of licence-free applications, local authorities and schools can redress the current financial issues and enable the establishment of sustainable ICT development in schools.

"The implementation of open source and open content can provide immediate cost savings of around 25 per cent with relative ease. An additional 30-35 per cent savings will require re-modelling how ICT is implemented and supported but can be achieved by utilising current support staff, consequently reducing the levels of redundancy at local authority level. Overall UK schools will have the most flexible ICT services at the lowest possible cost, mirroring the extensive use of open source that has been undertaken in many other countries."

What is open source? Open Source Schools' Miles Berry explains at BETT 2009

The report identifies the following benefits of open source:

  • "It enables cost reductions of more than 50 per cent on existing ICT delivery methods;
  • "It delivers the same applications to clusters of schools aiding transition and mobility;
  • "Software applications and digital learning resources are available to every student at home as licence-free applications;
  • "It puts the local support provider at the heart of delivery, enabling them to freely modify, develop and localise applications and digital resources;
  • "It enables schools to freely move services across providers with no issues regarding removal of products should support contracts finish.
  • "It enables the development of an overall education community who can share and develop common applications and products with no licence restrictions and no barriers to sharing developed applications and digital learning resources."

Gary Clawson's report says that the savings he outlines are contingent on creating an open-source culture across schools and local authorities. And he concedes that the £1.4 million a year savings "are not immediately achievable across a typical local authority region".

'You will release schools ICT from the shackles of commercial licensing'

"However," he adds, "the long term gains are much more significant. By remodelling how schools use ICT and creating a synergy with pupil-owned devices, concentrating on the development of teachers to find, use and exploit commonly available licence-free technology – you will release schools ICT from the shackles of commercial licensing and create a completely different and supportive education community.

"This is a vision based on having funding that is not readily available but requires true innovation, true value for money. The task is to reduce costs AND to remodel; it is an ambitious but totally achievable agenda."

The biggest challenge open-source advocates will face is persuading schools that like professional packages like Microsoft Office – and believe they get a reasonable deal – that an alternative like Open Office will release them from licensing "shackles". Similarly, those creating outstanding artwork with software like Adobe's Creative Suite 5 will take some convincing that they could achieve the same results with a program like Gimp (the report's appendix includes a list of alternative programs). That really will be culture change.

Teacher David Willmott explains the importance of open source software for  learners at his London school (at BETT 2010)

Swingeing cuts could, however, spark elements of the technology audits proposed by Gary Clawson's report. And help is at hand for schools interesated in following this route. Open Source Schools (OSS), the pressure group supported by the axed government ICT agency Becta, recently set up a working group to step up the adoption of open source following the Coalition Government's announcement of impending cuts. And the recent publication of OSS' open-source 'manifesto' has attracted a lot of interest.

Miles BerryMiles BerryMiles Berry, OSS community manager and a senior lecturer in ICT education at Roehampton University, says: "The increased interest in open source at the moment is undoubtedly fuelled by the need for schools and local authorities to find ways of saving money from their IT budgets, and, of course, the Open Source Schools community is here to help them do so.

"However open source is about much more than saving money: community support and development fit well with the ideas of the 'Big Society', and the flexibility that open source offers is important to many, including the Cabinet Office."

More information

"Open Services – Sustainable ICT for UK Schools"
Open Source Schools
"Open Source, Open Standards and Re­Use: Government Action Plan" – Cabinet Office document