pound;280m digital boost

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Educational suppliers welcome boost but fear cash may 'leak' away from schools to LEAs. Chris Johnston reports

Education Secretary Charles Clarke delivered a boost to schools and the educational software industry, battered by the go-ahead for the BBC's Digital Curriculum, by delivering an extra pound;280 million in e-learning credits at the January BETT exhibition. The addition means pound;100 million is available each year for the next three years to boost access to digital curriculum materials.

The credits will "ensure access to paid-for as well as free materials," Mr Clarke said.

The funding was part of a cash bonanza worth more than pound;850 million that included an extra pound;195 million for more laptops for teachers over the next three years, an extra pound;287 million to bring broadband internet access to all schools within three years and pound;8 million more for online training for teachers next year (contract awarded to 3TRM).

The boost to e-learning credits was welcomed by Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association. However, he feared some of the money could be used by local education authorities for other purposes, as it would still be distributed via the Standards Fund until purchasing is possible via the Curriculum Online portal. He said as much as 50 per cent of the funding allocated for books in the national literacy strategy through the Standards Fund "leaked".

Since Mr Clarke made his announcement, anecdotal evidence suggests schools have resumed buying software after a major lull, as many waited until the e-learning credits became available. "It seems that some of the money is coming through. We're getting positive comments from members so schools are spending again, but there is still a long way to go," Mr Barker said.

Some schools remained confused about the credits and Mr Barker said the Department for Education and Skills had failed to keep schools informed (see p21-23 for Curriculum Online special).

The decision of Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell to give the go-ahead to the BBC's digital curriculum was "very disappointing", said Mr Barker. The arguments against the initiative were strong and backed up by independent research, he said, but were not enough to prevent the BBC getting the Government's nod.

In late January, RM and 17 other software companies agreed with the BBC to settle their judicial review action concerning preparatory work for the Digital Curriculum.

However, RM has requested clarification of the 18 conditions imposed on the BBC by Ms Jowell and is considering whether to challenge them legally or complain to the European Commission and Office of Fair Trading.

RM chief executive Tim Pearson said: "We will decide on any further action once the Secretary of State has clarified the details of the 18 constraints placed on the BBC."

A BBC internal inquiry found that its joint director of factual and learning, Michael Stevenson, held discussions with Pearson, a possible digital curriculum distribution partner, in an "inadmissible period" after legal proceedings had been launched. He described that as an "error of judgement" and "decided to leave" the BBC in late January.

BBC director general Greg Dyke had written several times to Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino to discuss the issue, but a BBC spokesman said the internal inquiry cleared him. "There was no impropriety by Greg Dyke because he played no part in the matter," he said. He added that letters were drafted by the education department not by the director-general.

Mr Dyke worked for Pearson before joining the BBC three years ago and is known to have remained in close contact with Ms Scardino.

Shadow Culture Secretary John Whittingdale called for the findings of the BBC's internal inquiry to be made public.

Mr Dyke described Mr Stevenson's decision to leave the BBC as "sad".

Digital curriculum project director Clare Riley has also resigned.

The BBC said the pound;150 million licence-fee funded digital curriculum was due to launch in September but a spokesman said it would not start this year as there was "still a lot of technical work to be done".

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