Open door for open source?

17th June 2005 at 01:00
George Cole hears calls for Becta to be bolder after a new report on open source

Open source schools have welcomed the new report from national technology agency, Becta, that confirms that schools can save millions of pounds by using open source software (OSS). But some feel the report doesn't go far enough.

"Using Open Source Software in Schools" was based on research which compared total cost of ownership (hardware, software, support and training) of 13 schools using OSS with 33 non-OSS schools. The report says that in OSS primary schools, the cost per PC is half that for non-OSS schools, and for secondary schools there is a 20 per cent saving. On average, the support costs for OSS schools are around 50-60 per cent that for non-OSS schools. Open source software, like Linux, is low-cost or free, with no licence fees, and users can modify code if they desire.

The report does warn of issues like lack of compatibility with some subject software and lack of familiarity among teachers. Even so, Stephen Lucey, Becta's executive director for educational technology, concludes: "The general message is that open source is a viable option and one that is worth considering."

Richard Rothwell, chair of Schoolforge, an organisation which encourages the use of open source software in education, urged Becta to be "more flexible... because it's a rapidly changing field. I'd also like to see Becta being bolder about open source and less conservative."

Orwell School in Felixstowe went over to open source last year, According to deputy head John Osborne (left) the decision was "a no-brainer". "It's saved us money and greatly increased the number of computers we have available for students." Orwell decided to opt for the more conventional route of getting a specialist company to install its network - 238 thin client terminals (computers with little processing power and memory) for students plus 70 staff laptops running on Linux with application software like Star Office.

Over three years, the move to open source should save Orwell School Pounds 57,500 in support and software costs they would have faced with a comparable software bundle under the Microsoft Schools Agreement. And there are other savings, such as pound;2,000 a year which normally would have been spent on anti-virus software. "I think Becta's 20 per cent saving figure is on the low side," concludes Osborne. The school uses a mix of open source and Windows software like RM's Maths Alive! "It's not a case of one or the other, but by having open source as our core offering we save so much more money."

Stephen Uden, Microsoft education relations manager, welcomes the report as "quite balanced". However, the sample size was small and some of the savings may have been artificially inflated, he warns. "Several primary schools were in a cluster and getting free support from a secondary school - what happens when that support vanishes?" He adds that school customers pay up to 80 per cent less than business, and the cost of Microsoft Office has fallen by 26 per cent in six months.

Like Microsoft, RM, a major Microsoft supplier, has no plans to offer an open source alternative to schools. "We're like a garage and we'll provide whatever our customers want, whether its petrol, diesel or LPG," says Dave Leach, head of secondary marketing. "But at present, the demand is overwhelmingly for Microsoft and not open source."

Schoolforge would like to see the DfES and Becta encourage open source.

"You have government initiatives like the Cadcam in Schools project, which use software that only runs under Windows," says Richard Rothwell. Alluding to Microsoft's legal problems with the US government and EU Commission, he adds, "It's a mystery why the government is supporting a monopolist."

Stephen Lucey says that Becta is building on the report's findings, and is researching a comprehensive support package for schools wanting to move into open source. Rothwell says: "I think we'll see a tipping point with open source and when that happens, there'll be a rush by schools to embrace it, because it can save them so much money."

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