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Government's soft option rankles software industry

A pound;42 million software contract to two big players could spell the end for others, writes Chris Johnston.

The educational software industry has attacked the Government's decision to award a pound;42 million contract to the BBC and Granada, claiming the tender's conditions were altered after it was announced.

The two organisations will jointly develop digital resources for GCSE English, French, geography, history, maths and science. The BBC described the materials as being available through its education Web pages and to be supported by CDs and DVDs. It will spent pound;6.5 million of licence-payer funds on the project.

However, the Department for Education and Employment's announcement in November 1999 indicated that the materials would be delivered primarily through digital television. This was why broadcasters - the BBC, Granada Media and Anglia Multimedia (now part of Granada) - were involved in trialling the resources in schools.

"Pupils will take part in interactive exercises using broadcast material," learning and technology minister Michael Wills said at the time.

Dick Fletcher, managing director of New Media Press, known for titles such as Chemistry Set, has written to Mr Wills claiming the DFEE has signed a "death warrant" for his company by massively subsidising the BBC and Granada and effectively creating a duopoly.

"My company was not invited to tender for this contract because it is not a television broadcasting company," he told the minister. "The remit, however, has been radically changed to produce Internet-based interactive learning materials delivered through computers rather than television."

Fletcher's protests have been echoed by RM, which has written to education secretry David Blunkett, and Lewis Bronze, CEO of Espresso Broadband, who said the initiative threatened the flourishing educational software industry.

The British Educational Suppliers Association, has also written to the DFEE. Dominic Savage, its director-general, said the original tender was for materials to be primarily delivered by broadcast. "If that has changed, then frankly there should be a retendering procedure," he said. "If the goalposts move, you have to go back to square one. If this is allowed to continue then the DFEE has put pound;42 million into a situation of totally unfair competition."

A DFEEspokesperson said: "Broadcasting remains central to the service we are buying. Our vision of reaching pupils with these materials at home as well as at school means that delivery over digital TV is vital, but we had always envisaged that delivery over other channels would also be involved."

The materials are the first element of Curriculum Online, reflecting the DFEE's desire to ensure "the provision of digital content matches progress in the provision of infrastructure and in teacher training", resulting in "a coherent set of rich digital resources available across the curriculum". The DFEE spokesperson said a wide range of software developers would be involved.

The strategy is based on the recommendations of a report into the future of the National Grid for Learning from consultants NM Rothschild. They include a public-private partnership for the NGFLportal and using fibre-optic cable to give schools true broadband links.

A consultation for Curriculum Online proposals is open until July 1 at * For more on the Rothschild report, see

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