DFES in Microsoft talks

The DFES is drawing up plans with Microsoft for nationwide licensing. Chris Johnston reports

Microsoft is working with ministers to devise a national licensing deal that any school would be able to take up.

The move would result in savings for schools generated by eliminating the need for the software giant to deal with hundreds of individual school and local education authority contracts.

David Burrows, Microsoft's head of UK education, said a framework agreement would be drawn up in the next few weeks and be put to the Department for Education and Skills for consideration. "I would like to think it is a realistic prospect," he said.

It would be similar to a deal done for the Classroom 2000 project in Northern Ireland that offers a fixed price for five years for all of its 1,200 schools.

Earlier this year, the Office of Government Commerce negotiated a three-year deal with Microsoft to use its products across all departments, saying it would save pound;100 million.

Burrows said the firm's discussions with the DFES were already underway before Waveney MP Bob Blizzard asked a question about schools licensing in the Commons before it rose for the summer.

He asked education minister Ivan Lewis why there was an apparent discrepancy between the licence charges paid by two high schools in his constituency and Lowestoft further education college.

The college has 500 computers and pays pound;6,900 a year to Microsoft, while Kirkley High School hands over some pound;11,000 a year for its 273 computers.

The minister told Blizzard that he had made an "important point" and promised to investigate the issue. "Officials are continuing their discussions with Microsoft to seek a number of improvements in their licensing arrangements and to look at ways of ensuring schools are not disadvantaged by the licensing arrangements to which they are subject, compared to other education sectors," Lewis said in a written response.

However, Microsoft's Burrows said the Suffolk MP Blizzard was not "comparing like with like" because the college was covered by the company's Campus Agreement, while Kirkley High, also in in Lowestoft, came under the Schools Agreement.

Campus agreements are based on the number of staff, while schools agreements are calculated on the number of PCs.

Because schools had been on holiday over the summer, Microsoft had not been able to speak to them to establish whether or not these were isolated examples, he said.

"If it is a systemic problem then we need to look at whether our charges are fair and equitable," said Burrows, who was due to meet again with Blizzard last week, after TES Online went to press.

He rejected the Labour MP's claims that Microsoft was "unfairly hoovering money out of schools" and noted that Schools Agreement charges had not increased since its introduction three years ago.

Blizzard also noted that Douglas Alexander, the e-government minister, recently released a policy on using "open source" software in government. The minister said such solutions had "significant potential for cost-savings in the future" and could help avoid proprietary lock-ins - an inference to Microsoft's stranglehold.

Mark Evans, IT technician at St Peter's High School in Exeter, which uses Linux to run all its systems, doubted whether the policy would see the use of open source increase.

While many schools were interested in such solutions, he believed central government and LEAs were not serious about breaking the status quo.

However, Nottingham City Council recently dumped its crash-prone Microsoft email server in favour of a open source system, which had proved far more reliable.

Technology manager Richard Heggs said it cost about pound;20,000, while another council was recently quoted about pound;300,000 for a similar system. He said many schools in the United States were moving to open source and saw no reason why British schools could not follow suit.

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