Beware the enemy within. In recent months, the UK educational software industry has voiced concern about competition from the BBC, whose plans for the Digital Curriculum have been greeted by claims of monopolisation and "back-door privatisation". However, competition from the schools themselves might be a greater worry.
With sophisticated infrastructure and the resources to create their own ICT programs, many schools and colleges are now creating their own online courses and selling them.
This sharing comes at a price - pound;4 million is the figure often quoted as the amount made so far by Thomas Telford from selling its courses - but how good are these courses and how widespread is their influence?
We start at Thomas Telford. Headteacher Sir Kevin Satchwell recalls the very earliest days: "Our remit as a CTC when we were set up in 1990 by Ken Baker was to raise educational standards through effective practice and then share that practice with the wider education community. That is what we are doingI Software providers do not have a true understanding of what youngsters require.
"It was easy to work out that we needed to train the teachers and give them some decent content. I drew up a contract with schools where it was mandatory that a teacher would have to come to a one-day training program each term for five terms. It was not about raising money but improving skills levels and expertise of the teachers."
Initially, Thomas Telford offered 40 schools the chance to pilot the ICT materials. They were stunned when the 40 grew to 478 schools in the first year. Currently they are offering four courses including the HSBC maths course. Dame Mary Richardson of the HSBC trust approached the school because of the shortage of maths teachers. The ensuing course suits the syllabus of any of the GCSE exam boards and costs pound;600. "We can do that because of the sponsorship. If you have 150 kids in the average school in Year 10 and Year 11 that is pound;2 per head."
There are about 20 people at work on the team. Teachers, technicians, video technicians and web developers. Four are full-time, the rest part-time. Everything is done in-house. Little is spent on marketing.
So what happens to the money? Satchwell says he uses it "to oil the mechanisms of sharing". They have sponsored an Academy in Walsall, joining up with their own sponsor The Mercers Company and between them they are putting in pound;2.5m and pound;1.25m respectively. They have also committed sponsorship to 32 specialist schools and supported numerous primary projects.
Dixons City Technology College in Bradford has set up a software arm called Interactive Learning Ltd. John Lewis, principal of the college, set up the company last January: "The first product, Business Interactive, was developed by a small team of staff here and we seconded them to the new company. They are still employees of Dixon's CTC, but their teaching load has been reduced."
The second product, MAD (Maximising Achievement Database), is constantly being upgraded because of changing examinations and QCA requirements, so it has to be flexible. MAD is an ICT system dealing with target setting, assessment, reporting and monitoring pupil information.
John Lewis believes the defining feature of their offerings is that the material is designed by teachers for teachers: "We deliberately included local schools in the pilot scheme. We have taken their feedback to improve the quality and ensure it is rooted in classroom practice."
Kingshurst CTC, in Birmingham, started developing multimedia as an experiment about eight years ago. Nick Lamb, ICT manager for the Kingshurst federation of schools, explains: "In Kingshurst we have the Academy - an area where teachers can be given time off the curriculum to write the content for multimedia. The materials are written by the teachers who are delivering the course."
"Our flagship is GNVQ Science," he adds. "We deliver that to the whole cohort of 240 mixed-ability students in five 50-minute periods. It works well; 98 per cent passed this year." They have now written multimedia to cover the whole intermediate GNVQ.
"We are proud of the course and our experience is that every school who has seen it loves it," Lamb concludes.
Thomas Telford - www.ttsonline.nettts; Dixons CTC - www.dixonsctc.org.uk, www.interactive-learning.info; Kingshurst CTC - www.sciencelessons.co.uk
Thomas Telford School
TTS Online Ltd has four online courses:
* GNVQ ICT Intermediate (Worth 4 GCSE A*-C Grade passes), which is now used by 477 comprehensive schools across England
* GCSE (Double Award) in Applied ICT (Worth 2 GCSE A*-G passes)
* AVCE Single Award in ICT (Worth 1 full A level Grade A-E)
* GCSE Mathematics Intermediate Tier (Not syllabus specific)
The Intermediate GNVQ in Science course is equivalent to 4 GCSEs - twice as many as the GCSE double award. Includes access to extensive online materials for all subjects from Digitalbrain.com. pound;2,995 per annum per institution
Business Interactive designed to support GCSE in applied business. pound;2,250 one-off fee
MAD (Maximising Achievement Database) is pound;500 for an annual licence.
What does a school need to get started?
* Curriculum expertise
* Entrepreneurial expertise
* Seed funding
* To ensure that the students at the host school are not disadvantaged
* A dedicated team: web designers, graphic artists, programmers
* Risk takers
* Business plan
* Links with accrediting body
* Quality assurance strategies
* The ability to find a niche that is undeveloped
* The ability to train teachers
* Support mechanism for subscribers
* Sponsor for course
* Time for staff to develop the courses
* Some expertise in online learning