BECTA’s closing sends ripples throughout ed tech

The move is part of the government's larger plan to cut 6.2 billion pounds for fiscal 2010-2011.
The move is part of the U.K. government's larger plan to cut 6.2 billion pounds for fiscal 2010-11.

In a move that has sent shock waves throughout the education technology world, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), which has been a leading international voice in research and support for using information and communications technology (ICT) in schools, is shutting its doors—a victim of the new U.K. government’s cost-cutting measures.

BECTA’s closing could leave many U.K. schools on their own as they struggle to integrate technology effectively into teaching and learning, and its absence could be felt in the United States as well, observers say.

A “quango,” or non-departmental body, BECTA is the U.K. government agency that has led that nation’s drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology in teaching and learning. Through BECTA’s work, U.K. schools have received expert advice on ICT purchases and applications in the classroom. BECTA also led the U.K.’s Home Access plan, an ambitious national initiative that sought to offer certain low-income families with children a free laptop computer and internet access.

Most recently, BECTA, with the help of RM Education, was the governing body behind the movement to develop a Common File Format (CFF) for interactive whiteboard content. (See “New standard makes whiteboard content more accessible.”)

However, last month a new political administration came into power in the U.K., putting in motion the Treasury’s decision to close BECTA by November 2010. The move is part of the new government’s plan to cut 6.2 billion pounds from the national budget for fiscal 2010-11, a plan necessitated by the global financial recession, officials say.

According to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, the staff at BECTA’s headquarters anticipated cuts and job losses, but few were prepared for the 12-year agency’s closure. The closure will mean the loss of 240 jobs—and the loss of what BECTA Chairman Graham Badman said are valuable ICT services for schools and their students.

“Naturally we are very disappointed at the government’s decision,” said Badman and Stephen Crowe, chief executive officer of BECTA, in a joint statement. “BECTA is a very effective organization with an international reputation, delivering valuable service to schools, colleges, and children. Our procurement arrangement saves the schools and colleges many times more than BECTA costs to run. Our Home Access program will give laptops and broadband to over 200,000 of the poorest children. Our top priorities are now to make sure we have an orderly and fair process for staff, and that as far as possible schools, colleges, and children continue to benefit from the savings and support that BECTA has provided.”

According to the agency’s web site, 1.5 billion pounds has been spent on technology for U.K. schools through BECTA’s procurement agreements since 2002, and this has saved the nation’s educational system 223 million pounds—or an average of 28 million pounds per year. BECTA also says it has achieved cost savings of 55 million pounds for educational institutions and providers in the past year alone.

One example of how BECTA has helped U.K. schools save money on ICT is its support for open-source technology. In 2005, the agency produced a paper suggesting that schools could halve their ICT bills by adopting open-source software rather than Microsoft’s Windows and other applications. In 2008, it again suggested that schools should adopt more open-source software—which led Microsoft to drop some of its costs for licensing software to U.K. schools.

The U.K. government says BECTA’s closing will mean individual schools will be able to decide for themselves how to use technology. According to the Treasury, the closing aims to cut government spending waste, cut bureaucratic red tape, and protect individual school spending.

According to a report in The Guardian, many U.K. “analysts agreed that BECTA was expensive and, when faced with cuts, teachers would prefer to see it go than make big savings in their own budgets.”

In an ongoing Guardian poll launched recently, teachers voted BECTA the most valuable organization among a list of six national bodies; 49 percent voted it the most valuable, compared with just 3.9 percent for the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

However, when asked who should be responsible for procuring technology, only 9.6 percent of teachers had voted for BECTA as of press time, while 40.5 percent voted for independent schools.

Although closing BECTA will save the government money, some analysts say it will only hurt schools and the ICT industry in the long run.

Meris Stansbury

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