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Becta and school ICT: end of the line for the gravy train?

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Becta and School ICT: end of the line for the gravy train?

It's raining and I'm in Coventry. Unsurprisingly the time of year lends itself to epitaphs.

Coventry, once a proud industrial city was bombed flat during the Second World War, now it is home to a race of 'quangocrats' once powerful Government employees who have now been exiled from London for crimes we do not know.

Huddled among the diaspora are: the QCDA (nee QCA…Qualifications, Curriculum and Assessment), The Family Courts Welfare Dept, the National Probation Service and of course dear old BECTA, the schools ICT body...our old sparring partners.

Clearly the Government has a strict 'out of sight, out of mind' policy to do with departments that deal with children and where better to hide them than in the industrial wastelands of the Midlands?

But here is the rub… there is an election coming and our lost tribes are getting more than a little nervous as they survey the national debt, public sector cuts and party manifestos.

The Conservative party, who may well win the election have already pledged to shut Becta so maybe this is a good time to reflect on the doings of our old friends.

BECTA...the glory days

During the late 1990's a very rich country (the UK) poured money into school ICT, correctly seeing that a revolution was coming and that future prosperity of the country would be linked to some kind of digital competence.

At first there was chaos. Spending was as wild as procurement was, shall we say 'diverse'. Schools dumped their Acorns and 'the bloke down the road' installed a Windows 98 network for you if you didn't fancy going with RM.

Becta, bless their cotton socks, sought to bring order to chaos. Procurement guidelines were established, official suppliers were appointed and Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) were signed with a major software supplier.

At the same time a major project to connect up all schools to the fancy emerging broadband was put into effect.

Money was no object and time was short. Order was established, Becta was proud.

Trouble Looms

Long before the 2008 crash, trouble was brewing. Those naughty appointed vendors may have taken a few liberties with their market dominance and educationally discounted software.

Schools were now virtually all locked into Microsoft's Operating Systems and Office upgrade cycle...things were getting expensive.

In 2006 Becta told a group of Free Open Source software suppliers that the present situation was financially unsustainable. We all screamed 'Linux, FOSS, Licence Fees' in no particular order and hoped our day would come.

By 2007 the launch of the ill-fated MS Vista and the heavyweight Office 2007 caused near panic when the cost of renewing 80% of the school hardware stock to run it was revealed.

Becta boldly advised schools not to buy them and started proceedings to take Microsoft to the OFT (Office of Fair Trading)... times were changing indeed... an Open Source software supplier was even allowed onto the official procurement list... an omen?... our day had come...

Post Apocalypse

The National Debt is heading for the cool trillion mark, or rather it will unless someone pays some of it back. Public Sector spending will be cut, jobs will be lost. Birmingham Local Authority, the largest in the country is to shed 2,000 jobs saving about 50 million per year, others are following suit.

More jobs will doubtless be lost to pay for a new IT MOU, this time for the uncompleted £12.7 billion NHS IT project (btw you would have to lose 60,000 public sector workers to match this bill).

And what of Becta?

Becta has steadily developed its concept of school learning in the future and symbolises it with the 'Next Generation Learning' logo.

Essentially it is a far reaching vision of a web-facing world of education accessed by all learners whether in schools or outside in the community and homes. Broadband and home access are two planks central to this vision and Becta has nearly completed this work... Ok, admittedly they outsourced the Home Access 'give a kid a computer' programme to Capita but hey no-one's perfect.

In this new learning world the 'desktop' ultimately reduces to the browser. In this world the OS is irrelevant and the applications free and web based. What OS will predominate in five years time...who knows...maybe ChromeOS from Google? It matters little, the wheel has turned and the paradigm has shifted.

It does mean of course that the day of the professional MSCE school IT technician is all but over...but hey no-one's perfect and after all it'll save a couple of million pounds on wages.

For certain BECTA have this vision right, and in truth, by and large they have seen clearly in the past. They backed Open standards and they saw the power of the Internet for schools. That'll do.

They were never convinced about the adoption of Open Source software in schools though… despite identifying cost savings due to adoption of FOSS as far back as 2004. But schools were rich then so who can blame them as they struggled with the much bigger problem of getting schools to adopt ICT at all!

So dear Becta, if this is truly your last year you will have a legacy to look back on that has both achievements and failures (don't mention VLEs) but always the best of intentions.

Pity you did not promote FOSS earlier, we got very cross about that, but maybe we were not ready either.

In any case like Google, you tried not to do evil...what's next?

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