Could the abolition of Becta ultimately damage the teaching and education of technology and security in schools?

Opinion by Dan Raywood

As part of spending cuts from earlier this week, the British Education Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) was abolished by the Chancellor George Osborne.

As part of spending cuts from earlier this week, the British Education Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) was abolished by the Chancellor George Osborne.

The cut will see savings of around £65 million, a meagre drop in the ocean in the need to save £6.5 billion, and a loss of 240 jobs. It will cease to obtain any taxpayer funding from 1st June 2010.

So what did it actually do? According to research, Becta was the government's lead agency for information and communications technology (ICT) in education for the UK and it oversaw the procurement of all ICT equipment and e-learning strategy for schools.

Despite these cuts, the question remains that the impact could be felt deeper when it comes to supply and teaching of technology in schools. Looking away from an impact upon sales, could this affect vendors who were looking for accreditation?

I spoke with Ed Rowley, product manager of M86 Security, who admitted that he was disappointed with the decision to abolish Becta, as the company had been working with them as part of their accreditation process.

He said “I am concerned about the closure of this centralised advisory body and believe its loss could have costly repercussions further down the line for schools. I fully understand the government's need to cut costs but I wonder how much the abolishment of BECTA will actually cost the education sector if there is not a replacement for the quango.

“Teachers and headmasters don't always have the time to stay on top of new technology that can genuinely improve and enhance the learning experience. This is where BECTA stepped, by helping schools and colleges understand technology it uses and the benefits afforded them by new technology and online educational tools. BECTA also acted as a centralised body that would ensure fair pricing for schools and colleges in addition to ensuring that the technology they were buying would actually meet their requirements.”

To clarify, I asked Rowley if he knew of anything that was being put into place to either replace BECTA or cover the work it was doing.

He said: “I don't believe so. It appears as though the burden will be placed back on individual schools and Local Authorities.

He also commented that on the safety side this will have an impact, as data security is not taught, and people need to understand information communication technology in schools.

Last year the previous government announced a proposed strategy that would see lessons in how to use the internet safely become part of the curriculum from 2011. The strategy, called ‘Click Clever, Click Safe' would be taught to primary school children in England who would learn to block and report inappropriate content with the ‘Zip it, Block it, Flag it' campaign.

However, assuming that is a plan for the 2011/2012 school year and is being untouched by the coalition government, it leaves a whole school year without any support from Becta or security education.

In an argument for educating with better tools, there is a feeling that the removal of Becta will leave a missing link between vendors and local education authorities (LEAs).

Rowley said that M86 Security was seeking accreditation for its WebMarshal and MailMarshal products, and it was seeing that schools were asking for products.

“This shows how influential Becta has become. All they do is test to make sure that it blocks things and blocks people from accessing sites such as bullying and pornography, but allows pedagogical (educational) websites and resources, so it tests for the benefits for schools and IT companies,” he said.

Another company who worked with Becta is Bloxx, who said that it was also seeking accreditation for its web filter. Earlier this year it introduced a filter specifically for YouTube that allows it to be used with restrictions on the content available.

Eamonn Doyle, chief executive officer at Bloxx, admitted that the company was ‘pretty close to getting' the Becta accreditation. He said: “It was definitely useful as was any technology to set standards so it is quite disappointing. The local authority is always keen to get progress as it makes their job easier, and it gives the vendor the seal of approval.”

Upon the announcement of the closure of Becta, chairman Graham Badman and chief executive Stephen Crowne issued a statement claiming that they were very disappointed with the Government's decision. They also claimed that ‘our procurement arrangements save the schools and colleges many times more than Becta costs to run'.

Doyle questioned this comment, asking at what point is money saved. He said: “I would argue that they are not saving money but creating standards. If a council wants to buy a web filter with a Becta badge on it they will shop around.

“We have always sold to and targeted the LEA, but there is a benefit with the Becta quality badge. They will need to do their homework to determine the minimum standard or policy,” said Doyle.

So what of the future for education in schools without the Becta backup network behind local authorities and schools?

Rowley said: “This is a step back for schools and there is nothing to replace it, and the onus is back on the educational authority to cover it. From a security and e-safety perspective it will be missed.”

When the cuts were announced, there was a feeling that the ‘quango' had to be a sacrificial lamb for the change in government.

It may be years into the future when the full impact of the abolition of Becta is felt, but for this writer who was educated on BBC and Viglen computers before the dawn of web-based malware and email, I feel this is a step backwards and it will be future generations who suffer.

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