Curriculum Online (COL), the Government's initiative to give teachers easy access to digital resources, and the BBC's digital curriculum plans offering free resources on the website have plunged the educational software industry into turmoil.
The Department for Education and Skills was due to launch the website in September but, as TES Online went to press, it had still not revealed a launch date. There are fears it may now be held over until the BETT exhibition in January.
Pressure on the DfES has resulted in it releasing its pound;50 million e-Learning Credits scheme to schools ahead of the COL launch to allow schools to buy new digital learning materials The project has been plagued by technical problems related to the "tagging" of products that allows them to be identified in the database, as well as delays in finalising the terms and conditions of supplier contacts. A DfES spokesman said: "We are committed to ensuring the portal's effectiveness for teachers and therefore want to undertake thorough testing before it goes live."
Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association, said that many schools had stopped buying software as they waited for their e-Learning credits.
He said some schools had already been informed about their e-Leaning credits allocation, while others had not, even though the DfES had written to local education authorities asking them to hold off until the portal was launched.
Schools' reluctance to buy software had created cashflow problems for many software companies and there were fears that some smaller firms could go to the wall.
Nigel Cannon of 2Simple Software believes the industry is needlessly teetering on the brink. "It's absolutely stupid," he said.
His firm has recently launched 2Investigator, which has proved to be very popular among schools, with many orders forthcoming, but very few payments.
"It's a very confusing situation," he said. "Schools don't know whether they have the money or not."
Greeting the news of the u-turn on learning credits, BESA director-general, Dominic Savage said: "It's exactly the right decision for education because it will drive the desire for more software to be used in schools and will help the industry which has been waiting for a long time, even though we knew the reasons. And we think it's a good idea that the portal is fully tested and has the very best materials."
Uncertainty about what free materials the BBC planned to offer is further complicating the situation. As TES Online went to press, culture secretary Tessa Jowell had still not made a decision on the BBC's digital curriculum.
Last month, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport set up a panel and met with representatives from the DfES, Department of Trade and Industry, software companies and other interested groups including NAACE, the computer advisers' association, to provide more advice to Jowell.
Steve Bacon, NAACE general secretary, said COL would "play an important role", but believed the BBC's proposals to provide the resources would have a negative effect on the market.
The association urged the culture secretary to restrict the activities of the BBC. Graham Taylor, the Publishers' Association director of education, said that he considered the BBC's proposals to be unacceptable and hoped Jowell would heed the industry's warnings.
Taylor declined to speculate on the consequences if the BBC's plans were approved in their present form. "We hope our arguments will be listened to," he said.
Publishers would be able to cope with a delay to COL's launch as long as e-learning credits were made available to schools immediately, according to Taylor.
A BBC spokesperson admitted that there could be some short-term disruption to the market, but argued that its digital curriculum would help to excite teachers about online resources and increase the number using them in the classroom.
"We're asking people to take a leap of faith," he said.
Publishers' Association: www.publishers.org.uk