I have intended to build up a carefully stepped argument in this blog, only progressing to look at specific policy issues when I had covered some important background first. But in view of the speed with which the current debate around education technology is progressing (and in particular, the opportunity this week presented by the #AskGove Twitter campaign), I have decided to publish ahead of schedule a summary of reasons why the DfE should cancel it’s ill-conceived Information Management and Learning Services framework.
On 11 November the DfE published an Invitation to Tender for a framework agreement for school software, with the deadline for responses on 22 December.
The framework will produce a short-list of suppliers, simplifying EU rules for local authorities which subsequently make procurements worth more that £150,000. It is irrelevant for schools, which invariably make procurements worth less than £150,000.
The framework has two lots: lot 1 covering management information systems (MIS); and lot 2 covering learning services (also known as learning platforms).
Lot 1 is intended to address a lack of competition in the MIS market. This strategy follows a rationale produced by Becta in its September 2010 report, School MIS and value for money.
Lot 2 replaces Becta’s 2006 learning services framework, now expired, which was intended to push new forms of education technology into schools.
Both lots aim to improve standards of technical interoperability. The current inadequacy of these standards reduces market competition and restricts opportunities for innovative SMEs and open source providers.
Reasons for cancellation common to both lots
The centralised procurement of education software by local authorities is wasteful, bureaucratic, tends to ignore genuine user requirements, and is inconsistent with the government’s desire to increase school autonomy.
The framework undermines competition, tending to exclude SMEs, which:
- cannot provide a “one-stop-shop” for all the services required for each lot;
- had difficulty in dealing with the complex 500 page tender within tight deadlines;
- are disadvantaged by the tender’s focus on supplier capability rather than product functionality (estimated to cover only 16.5% of the ITT’s requirements);
The ITT was poorly drafted, resulting in 279 requests for clarification, with many answers being delayed or having to be drafted by the questioners themselves.
The provisions for technical interoperability are vague, unclear and unenforceable, so that, like previous initiatives, the framework will fail to deliver better interoperability, while the DfE continues to ignore the need to take effective action to address this problem.
Signing contracts under the framework will require companies to absorb extra legal costs and make provisions for draconian penalty clauses, sometimes doubling or tripling the price of products, which may originally be worth less than £5,000.
Most bidders expect that there will be very few call-offs against the framework (there was a total of one call-off on Becta’s two last frameworks); but still feel constrained to bid in order to avoid reputational damage as a result of not being on the short-list.
Specific reasons to cancel lot 1
The lack of competition in the MIS market is not caused (as Becta argued) by the lack of a formal procurement mechanism, but by the control over procurement exercised by local authorities, which the framework seeks to perpetuate. A market study by Atkins, on which the Becta report was based, showed that local authorities suffer a conflict of interest in this regard:
- most local authorities are only able to support a single MIS;
- inefficient technical support of school MIS by local authorities costs more to schools than the MIS licences themselves.
Becta’s arguments against procurement by individual schools (now being cited by ex-Becta employees in the DfE) were never credible:
- Becta discounted procurement by schools on the basis that each secondary school would spend 19 man days selecting an MIS—while a straw poll of head teachers by the SSAT found that in practice this took a maximum of 2 man days;
- Becta claimed that aggregated procurement saved 20%, without providing any justification for this figure and failing to consider the likely impact of a more competitive market, which would result from disaggregated procurement;
- Becta warned that procurement by schools would “swamp the MIS marketplace”, ignoring the trend towards cloud services, specifically targeted at schools, requiring no local hosting and minimal installation and maintenance;
- Becta was itself not impartial, its main argument for its own existence resting on the money it claimed to save by so-called “aggregated procurement”.
Specific reasons to cancel lot 2
In the year following the 2006 procurement, Becta’s approval rating amongst head teachers, instead of meeting its target of 70%, fell to under 20%.
No effective measures have been taken to address the failure of interoperability standards, which were largely responsible for the failures of the previous learning services framework and of the BBC Jam initiative (2003–2007).
Neither Becta nor the DfE have provided any rationale to justify the new learning services procurement, or revealed who is asking for it to happen.
The government should cancel both lots of the IMLS framework, showing support for an open market in education technology, led by schools and not local authorities.
The government should suspend the DfE’s dysfunctional Information Standards Board and consult with suppliers on how to take effective action to improve interoperability standards.
 School management information systems and value for money, September 2011 at http://www.school-portal.co.uk/GroupDownloadFile.asp?GroupId=162416&ResourceID=3480985.
 As estimated by “schoolpack”, a contributor to the EduGeek forum at http://www.edugeek.net/forums/mis-systems/76154-something-keep-eye-dfe.html. A full analysis of the IMLS requirements will be conducted in a future post on this blog.
 A full analysis of the interoperability requirements in the IMLS ITT will follow on this blog.
 Atkins estimated the cost of local-authority support at £65 million per annum (ibid, para 1.41, page 8) compared to the total cost of MIS licenses, compared to the cost of MIS licenses at £38–£44 million per annum (ibid., para 1.40, page 7).
 Op cit, para 10.22 on page 37.
 Ibid, para 10.23 on page 37.
 Ibid, para 10.19 on page 37.
 See Becta’s response to the announcement of closure, reported for example at http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/358156/becta-bites-the-dust-in-government-cuts.
 “Whilst most head teachers at recent BESA focus groups have confirmed that they have learning platforms, response on their effectiveness is so far disappointing and interoperability difficulties are part of the issue”, http://tinyurl.com/7dabcy2, BESA Policy Commission, 2008, page 62.
 “Our survey found evidence of a great deal of development work being carried out by individual institutions and local authorities…However, in most of the provision surveyed, the use of VLEs to enhance learning was not widespread”, Virtual learning environments: an evaluation of their development in a sample of educational settings, Ofsted, January 2009, http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/virtual-learning-environments-evaluation-of-their-development-sample-of-educational-settings.
 Chief executive’s report to the board, October 2007, the relevant page of which is copied to http://www.saltis.org/orphans/Becta-annual-report-2007-10.gif. Becta reacted to this collapse in confidence by changing the way that they collected its approval rating data and by launching a major PR campaign the following January.
 A full examination of the DfE’s Information Standards Board will be conducted on this blog. In the four years of its existence, it is not responsible for a single standard which has been implemented by anyone. It has produced a suite of specifications which have never been piloted and which have been developed without any consultation with the industry, and even though it is acknowledged that they are unimplementable, are now being imposed as a mandatory requirement in the IMLS framework. The ISB allows no industry representation on its board and no details of meetings, minutes or attendees or agendas of SIGs or working groups are published on their website at http://www.education.gov.uk/escs-isb.