Software firms in Net wrangle

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Government 'kitemark' plans and the BBC's pound;135m Web push could damage the educational software industry. Chris Johnston reports.

Educational software developers in the UK, a key force in the Government's plans for its National Grid for Learning (NGFL), are worried about a government plan to "kitemark" online services and the BBC's pound;135 million proposal to put "free" education resources online.

The Department for Education and Employment has issued a prospectus outlining how firms can submit online content services for kitemarking by its NGFL "keeper", the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. An approved service will be able to call itself an "NGFL Learning Service" for three years.

The BBC has unveiled a pound;135 million plan to create an online resource for pupils, teachers and parents to help raise educational standards. A BBC spokesperson said it is still in the consultation stage and that any responses are welcome. He said that while commercial providers concentrate on the more lucrative curriculum areas such as maths and English, the BBC wants to offer a comprehensive resource - materials for up to 30 subjects.

Dominic Savage, director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association said that while he welcomed the Government's interest in developing content services, "kitemarking" is a term that concerns publishers. For example, book publishers would resist any attempt to have an approved list of books; so why should software be any different?

He is more concerned about the BBC "digital curriculum" proposal. This could remove choice and become a monopoly resource in schools over time. "The market for alternative approaches could all but disappear, and with it the expertise the UK has in developing diverse educational content," he warned. "By the time the backlash arrives it will be too late."

PhilHemmings, corporate affairs director of RM agreed: "It seems inappropriate for the BBC to be using public funding to compete with the likes of Granada, Anglia and Pearson. Effectively we could end up with a state-endorsed, monopoly provider of learning content - not only is this anti-competitive, but it gives the BBC far too much influence over the direction of the UK's curricula."

He concluded: "So it could be that huge amounts of public money gets used to drive down an educational dead end - mainly to justify the BBC's precious public service remit and to safeguard future licence fees."

Mike Aston, an educational consultant who chairs the Educational Software Publishers Association, has consulted his members. On kitemarking, he said:

"Market forces will dictate the quality of software. The teaching profession has grown up. Just as they know the good textbook publishers, they know the good software publishers. Teachers can decide for themselves; any attempt by someone else to give it a stamp of approval is probably going to be seen as bias, or non-independence." Another danger of the scheme is that it could be an expensive white elephant, he warned.

On the BBC plan, he said, "The most dramatic comment made to me was that it could kill the British educational software industry. It would eclipse it." It could skew the market and would recruit crucial personnel in a relatively small, specialised workforce. And it could also do this overseas, in countries anxious to set up their own, culturally specific producers: "It's cultural imperialism all over again, but in a different form."

However, not all online providers were so critical. Peter Stibbons, managing director of Anglia Multimedia, said of the kitemarking scheme, "We're all for it because we are confident that our material will fit the bill."

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