BT faces Scots anger

Schools unhappy over Edinburgh City Council ICT contract reports Douglas Blane

Corporate greed and council naivety are damaging children's education in schools across Edinburgh, according to headteachers.

Locked into an ICT management contract with BT Syntegra, which imposes "outrageous costs" while delivering a "dreadful service", according to a report by aggrieved headteachers, the authority is now struggling to quell the rebellion in its schools.

The extent of the problems is revealed in the report, suppressed by the authority but seen by The TES. Having been persuaded to sign a contract with BT effective until 2011 for management of a single ICT network across offices, libraries, community centres and schools, Edinburgh City now says "it is essential that the safety and security of this network is maintained for all users".

This explains the charge of pound;67 to schools, said BT Syntegra, for simply connecting a computer to the network - as well as the annual charge of Pounds 84 for keeping it there.

What this means to schools, however, is that one class of 25 pupils with "a laptop for every child", one of Edinburgh's fondest aspirations, would pay pound;2,100 every year - a tiny drop in BT's annual profits (pound;2.1 billion this year, up 10 per cent), but a crippling sum for a school with a tiny budget for ICT.

This is the minimum cost per computer. If the school needs technical support - the option recommended by BT and the Council - the annual cost per machine rises to pound;203, or pound;497 for a BT-supplied computer.

The difference between the two levels of support is explained in a recent letter from BT to a headteacher, which stated: "Please be aware that should you opt for Class D support your school would be responsible for the build of these PC's and there (sic) ongoing hardwaresoftware support."

BT Syntegra refuses to support computers that are more than a few years old, so in schools in the authority, older machines, still used in classrooms until recently in all sorts of imaginative ways, are being scrapped.

More seriously, according to headteachers, BT is trying to lock schools into a uniform, PC-based solution - "whether or not it meets our needs" - to the exclusion of Apple, whose user-friendly, imaginative software is still preferred by most teachers.

"The culture within BT Syntegra is one of low risk and bureaucratic process, whereas education is about innovation and best value," says the report. "We are fast coming to the conclusion that the two cultures are incompatible."

One Edinburgh headteacher went further, saying: "I believe what BT is doing in our schools is so disgraceful that Audit Scotland should be called in.

If we need a contract with a company like BT in future, it should be negotiated by the Scottish Executive (which ensures public money is properly spent) and a large team of lawyers."

BT said that initial difficulties had occurred because BT had been attempting to keep networks safe and secure.

An Edinburgh City Council spokesperson said: "The head teacher's comments are ill-informed. It would be wholly inappropriate for the Scottish Executive to negotiate contracts on behalf of local authorities. This is not realistic.

"The council contract was completed as a result of extensive negotiation and due diligence. In the course of its normal duties, Audit Scotland previously reviewed the contract and can further investigate any aspect of the council's financial transactions.

"In addition the council is negotiating to make enhancements to the scope of the services provided by BT to education but this is contingent in part on the Council being able to provide some additional funding."

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