Mounting opposition to Beeb's big idea

Chris Johnston

Alarm in the software industry is growing over the BBC's online plans, reports Chris Johnston

BBC director general Greg Dyke and Michael Stevenson, the BBC's joint director of factual and learning, met with Estelle Morris, the education secretary, last month to bolster support for the organisation's digital curriculum ambitions.

A Department for Education and Skills (DFES) spokesperson would not say what was discussed at the "private" meeting, though it is believed Dyke and Stevenson wanted to drum up support for the BBC's plan to spend pound;135 million - 1 per cent of its licence fee income - over the next five to six years on online materials to support the national curriculum. The BBC believes this is one way to convince government that its licence fee should be maintained at least at current levels.

The revelation that BBC top brass have been lobbying the highest levels of government will further alarm the education industry, which fears that the BBC will destroy the market for online learning materials by offering its online curriculum free to schools and create a de facto monopoly.

In its submission to the consultation on the DFES's Curriculum Online document that aims to determine the best ways of improving education through the use of technology, the BBC said public funds should go towards creating a "single, coherent core curriculum service, rather than fund rival offerings of the same popular subjects".

In the document, the DFES says it wants a "coherent set of rich digital resources available across the curriculum", but a joint submission from the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa) and the Publishers Association (PA) states that the commercial industry "cannot compete with free-at-delivery material unless earmarked funding is available to schools".

Besa and the PA believe that the market can be fostered by giving schools "electronic learning credits" to buy digital learning materials - the BBC disagrees with this.

The trade associations also strongly oppose the BBC's keen interest in controlling what materials are commissioned for a digital curriculum. They say an independent body is needed through which the BBC and other public and private sector bodies should work. "The BBC or any other provider cannot and must not fulfil the role of both provider and commissioner. The two roles must be separate."

The submission from The Guardian's educational website, Learn.co.uk, echoed that view and said the concept of one lead content commissioner was "dangerously prescriptive".

Managing director Colin Hughes called on Estelle Morris to save schools from a digital content catastrophe: "What the DFES is proposing to do is dangerously close to imposing a set of national text books on every school."

Likewise, Channel 4's 4Learning rejects the lead commissioner idea, but agrees there is a need for a portal or "one-stop shop" to help teachers find the materials they need. Resources ought to be independently assessed by an organisation such as TEEM, 4Learning adds.

The BBC wanted the first digital curriculum materials available this month, but is waiting for the DFES to publish the results of its Curriculum Online consultation, expected in October, before seeking the necessary approval from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Frank Flynn, BBC controller of education for children, has revealed that the BBC and Granada are still resolving differences over the pound;42 million government contract to develop digital learning materials for six GCSE subjects, and that the BBC has not yet sought formal DCMS approval. He denied that the delay was related to industry protests over the way the contract was awarded.

The first of these materials are not due to be available until September 2002.

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Chris Johnston

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