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The long-awaited report on the use of open source software (OSS) in schools was published today by Becta, the Government's lead agency for ICT in education. As expected, the report concludes that OSS can offer a "cost effective alternative" to proprietary solutions. But it also cautions that an OSS implementation needs careful planning and support.

Overall, the report is very cautious, and is a long way from championing open source as the best possible option for education. It argues that schools should consider individually if migrating to OSS is their best option. The potential cost benefits and savings clearly make it an option worth serious consideration, the report says, but cost is not the only factor Becta considers important. The culture within the school also needs to be taken into account.

However, the findings of Becta's investigation into the total costs of ownership suggests that open source is at least competitive with, if not cheaper, to own and maintain than proprietary solutions, with much of the savings being made on support costs.

This must be something of a blow for Microsoft, which has spent a lot of the last year arguing that TCO is where open source falls down. But the company is sticking to its guns, and says that some of the schools in the research are anomalous, and distort the findings.

Stephen Uden, education relations manager at Microsoft, says it is hard to draw any large-scale conclusions from such a small sample, as was used in this research. The study was of a small group of schools - just 48 in total, of which 15 were using open source software, he points out.

He stresses that where the largest TCO savings were found, among the primary schools, there were three schools in particular that skewed the findings.

"The bigger savings are claimed for primary schools, but three of those were in a cluster supported by a local secondary school. They also had the help of a local unix programmer whose costs are not included in the calculations of TCO," he told us. "OSS is great if you have the support of an expert who is committed. But if you have to start buying in those services, it gets expensive very quickly."

Mike Banahan, director of the not-for-profit OSS advocate group OpenForum Europe, said that the report revealed a massive opportunity for schools to get the best value for money from their IT budgets.

"The advent of Open Source Software solutions in education opens up the whole UK Education market for the first time in a decade to competitive choice, removing the inevitability of lock-in," he said.

You can read the full report here (pdf). ®

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