Becta closure will hit poorest students

The Government's closure of Becta is set to cost schools and colleges hundred of thousands in increased IT costs.

The scrapping of the Government agency, which promotes the use of IT in education, was announced yesterday. It's the first major casualty in a package of measures by the chancellor, George Osborne, aimed at slicing £6 billion from the country's budget deficit this year.

A spokeswoman at Becta told THINQ she couldn't comment directly on the impact of the closure. But in a statement, chairman Graham Badman and chief executive Stephen Crowne said: "Naturally we are very disappointed at the Government's decision."

The Government claims the closure of the organisation, which it labels a "quango", will save taxpayers £80 million – around £10 million of that in the current financial year.

But allegations have been made to THINQ that Becta's closure will simply increase the burden of IT costs on schools – hitting frontline education services that the coalition has pledged to protect.

Cutting IT costs
Created in 1998, Becta has been instrumental in securing savings on IT investments for schools and colleges around the country by establishing a framework for schools and colleges to band together and buy in bulk.

Defending the agency's value for money in their statement yesterday, Becta chiefs said: "Our procurement arrangements save the schools and colleges many times more than Becta costs to run."

THINQ talked to a group of Further Education colleges from the northwest who had benefited first-hand. In a 2008 Becta-led scheme, the consortium of three colleges saved more than £120,000 on the cost of replacing their PCs.

A spokesman for Preston College told us: "We found if we bought with other colleges, we could order 1,000 PCs instead of 200. The cost savings worked out at around £120 per PC."

Critics also dispute whether the Government's cuts will achieve the promised savings. Learning expert and former Becta Head of Community Programmes, Fred Garnett, puts the true cost savings from cutting Becta at more like £20 million – and says they'll be more than cancelled out by increased pressure on individual schools' IT budgets.

"Yes, the closure of Becta will cost more, hence suppliers' pleasure at Becta's demise," Garnett told THINQ.

According to Garnett, costs will also be pushed up by a more fragmented public sector IT market: "It's not just about paying more because of potential profiteering by sales agents, but the companies themselves will need to employ more staff in sales and manage a much more complex sales environment."

Pointing to Becta's role in negotiations, Garnett added: "One of the keys in the current negotiations is the expertise that can be brought to bear on the whole licensing problem, not just the boxes being shifted."

Hidden agenda
Hitting out at what he termed was a "hidden" policy agenda, Garnett accused the coalition of fuelling social inequality, increasing the divide between digital 'haves' and 'have nots'. "There are no votes in social inclusion, so cuts are always made in that area," he told THINQ.

"You spend on middle-class schools, as that buys you votes," Garnett said. "Social and digital inclusion, prison education, community learning, collaboration, active citizenship and so on: no votes in that, so no money in it."

The closure of Becta also has ramifications for cooperation between institutions. Miles Berry of Roehampton University's School of Education told THINQ: "Becta achieved a huge amount in leading ICT across education. We owe them a debt of gratitude for that."

"It is now down to individual relationships and informal networks that Becta has helped to establish," Berry said. "Without Becta's leadership, I wonder if we would have made those networks."

He added, however, that he hoped the Government's new budget constraints may spur innovation, particularly in the popularising of open-source software.

Becta is scheduled to close this month, with the loss of 240 jobs.