Bectas demise may not have much of an impact


On 24 May 2010 the Government announced a package of measures to reduce expenditure in the public sector. This included the planned closure of Becta.  So Becta is on its way out  with its web site closing at the end of  this month  and the quango gone by April 2011 . Becta provides  universal support for ICT in schools. Its demise though  will not generally be much  lamented. Becta did  a service  though by pointing out that just one in five schools use computers effectively and far too many seem to think that computers can only be used to assist with exams and tests  rather than  more creatively. Schools spend £1.65 billion a year on information technology, with one computer to every three pupils in secondary schools, and one to six in primary schools. Yet as the Times pointed out  not long ago some heads, particularly those who were  involved with the BSF programme, complain that they have lost freedom over their IT budgets, and are forced to buy expensive equipment through designated suppliers.   An Ofsted report in 2009 found that  only around half of the schools visited showed that they were systematically evaluating the impact of ICT resources on improving learning.

The  mastering of   Microsoft Word programmes , spreadsheets  and data input  seems to be the main priority in too many cases. Why Microsoft was allowed to gain  such a virtual stranglehold in our schools is largely down to Bectas  initial relative inaction . Becta started off very close to Microsoft  and became slowly estranged .It  only acted with robustness very late in the day. It did ultimately  refer Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) alleging that the software giant was benefiting from abusing its dominant position in the market but Becta  had looked slow on its feet with the  drawn out negotiations suiting Microsoft. Becta  focused on getting deals on expensive hardware and software  paying little attention to other  cheaper or free options. It then began to understand the benefits of open source  access but was then heavily criticised   by the  open source community following its  decision in 2008  to award its open source schools project to a little-known assessment  firm AlphaPlus Consultancy tasked with  setting  up and running   the open source project  . The aim was  to support ‘ schools with awareness, adoption, deployment, use and ongoing development of their use of Open Source Software…. And to complement existing OSS community initiatives within schools and elsewhere. ‘…

Open source software is developed using an open and collaborative approach where the outcomes of this joint effort are made available to users without charge. The program code is not kept closed, but is published for others to study and improve as part of this spirit of openness and collaboration.

High quality Freeware and open source have been available for ages . It  means the system and the programs do not require proprietary licenses. For example OpenOffice.org is a free suite of Office tools. It has the same core components as proprietary options, such as a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation builder. Indeed, there is an open source alternative to most of the major applications.

This means that there is not only a lower cost overall, but also students can use the same programs on home computers. There is less threat  too  from viruses,  and if used efficiently  less memory is needed . The widely used Linux system claims to be   as flexible as Microsoft  and  in some  respects easier to  use.

John Spencer, former teacher, turned blogger, thinks things are going to change fairly quickly on the ICT front  as more schools become academies. “Say goodbye to: outsourced services; any unsexy software (such as Microsoft Office that they could get just as good for free); interactive whiteboards; GCSE and A2 ICT examinations (it’s about £100 per pupil per exam),” he writes on the IT website Computerworld. And what is going to take their place? “Fast broadband; anything Apple (special educational deals on iPads); lots of videoconferencing kit; vocational ICT qualifications (from Cisco, RedHat, Microsoft).”

Spencer believes it  may be that the frustrated school governor is going to see life become easier — at least in procuring IT equipment and software. And it may turn out that removing Becta  a body that was meant to make it cheaper for schools to get computers,  actually allows them now  to get a wider variety. And for children preparing for a computer-driven world, it might well  be a boon if it can bring a more creative approach to how they use the machines in schools.

Meanwhile the challenge remains  to harness the enthusiasm and expertise of young people in gaming , surfing the internet and social networking   so that this  brings greater  benefits  to their personal  learning and education.

Joe Nutt, a senior consultant with CFBT Education Trust, will be releasing a report  this month  which looks at ICTs use in schools ‘ Professional educators and the evolving role of ICT in schools.’

Note  also that the BETT Show is 12-14 January 2011


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