Schools should not sign up to a licensing agreement with software giant Microsoft, the Government's education technology agency has advised, until an official complaint to the Office of Fair Trading has been investigated.
Becta has warned schools against getting "locked into" Microsoft's schools agreement. Under the subscription package, schools must pay for a licence on every machine in their schools, even if some are Macs or running open- source operating systems such as Linux for one to three years.
Schools usually opt for the subscription service above a larger one-off payment, because of budget restrictions.
But Becta says that "buy-out" clauses on subscription packages are too high and schools are made to pay up to three times the annual charge if they want to switch.
Microsoft did agree to lower the get-out fee substantially, but it will return to the higher level at the end of the year.
Becta is also unhappy that parents and pupils with home computers using non-Microsoft packages find it difficult to open and use documents that have come from their school. It has warned schools to make sure their software is sufficiently compatible with other products.
Becta made the complaint to the Office of Fair Trading last Friday after talks with the global software firm "left fundamental issues unresolved". An agency spokesman said: "We are determined to get the best deal we can for schools and for the wider educational system. This demands an effective educational ICT market-place and the avoidance of impediments to effective competition and choice."
The agency raised the concerns with Microsoft after two investigations it conducted earlier this year.
A report in 2005 also found that primary schools could cut their computer costs by half if they stopped buying, operating and supporting products from the largest software companies.
Average costs for secondary schools using free-to-use open-source software and the basic hardware to run them were found to be 24 per cent lower per computer.
If all schools transferred to open- source, there could be a saving of pound;60 million in secondaries and pound;220 million for primaries.
Licences for Microsoft run to around pound;40 a year per computer, although the Government has signed a secrecy deal with the firm so it does not reveal how much is spent overall on licences. A typical primary would pay out pound;1,600 a year, and a typical secondary might pay around pound;13,500.
Education technology expert Miles Berry, headteacher of Alton Convent Preparatory School in Hampshire, explained that despite the potential savings, it can be very difficult for schools to switch.
"I'm with Becta on this, as what Microsoft is doing does skew the playing field in their favour," he said. "Even if a school plucks up the courage to try open-source, it doesn't make financial sense just to convert one room, as if you still want Microsoft on some machines, the licensing agreement means you have to pay for it on all of them."
He said that it was often much easier to recruit Microsoft-trained technical staff and some schools preferred to stick with the biggest company as it prepared pupils for what they might be using in the world of work.
A spokeswoman for Microsoft said the company was yet to receive any notification of the complaint from Becta, but added: "Every day schools across the UK benefit through using our technology and participating in our academic programmes. We are in ongoing discussions with Becta on this matter."
Free alternatives to Microsoft and Apple
Linux is free to schools and will run paid-for and open-source software.
Open Office: runs on Linux, Apple and Windows systems and is the equivalent to Microsoft Office. A recent report by Becta showed it was adequate for use in primaries and secondaries for word processing, spreadsheets and presentation development.
Star Office: a slightly more sophisticated version of Open Office, with a better spellcheck and more comprehensive clipart.
Moodle: the most widely used open-source software for creating "virtual learning environments". These are secure personal electronic folders which pupils can access online and download homework, lessons and tests from their teachers.