In the beginning was Word

When schools buy software, there seems to be only one choice: Microsoft. Why don't more of them use Linux? It can do most of the work, it's more secure and it's free. Michael Pollitt investigates
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In the past week there's been a lot of talk about "choice" in relation to schools. But there's one area where children, and schools, don't see much choice: the software they use. It's likely, for example, that children leave school thinking that Microsoft Word is the only word processing program. That Excel is the only spreadsheet. And Internet Explorer the only web browser.

In the past week there's been a lot of talk about "choice" in relation to schools. But there's one area where children, and schools, don't see much choice: the software they use. It's likely, for example, that children leave school thinking that Microsoft Word is the only word processing program. That Excel is the only spreadsheet. And Internet Explorer the only web browser.

This one-tracked experience worries Simon Tindall. "Are we still teaching children to use Microsoft and PCs, or are we using computers to teach history or geography?" he demands. "Microsoft is so strong in schools today that there's concern that it's creating a status quo and therefore reducing innovation within education."

It could be argued that Tindall has an animus here - after all, he is the UK regional manager education & research for Sun Microsystems, one of Microsoft's bitter rivals. But he has a wider point. He suggests that we should think beyond the "current malaise" of PCs and Microsoft applications. For example, if children learn exclusively on Microsoft Word, that's arguably fine for the business world, but ill-equips them for change. There's a price tag too: Tindall reckons that schools spend £22m annually on Microsoft Office alone. That would pay for a lot of teachers and fix many leaky roofs.

To help cut such bills, Sun Microsystems has challenged Microsoft with free office productivity software called StarOffice, which runs under Windows, Linux and Solaris. It features word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and database functions, and has been licensed by the Scottish Executive on behalf of 2,800 schools. However, there aren't any savings yet because the deal has only just been signed, and schools don't have to use the software - they have the choice.

But can schools move away from Microsoft, as some in the business world are doing? There, the Linux operating system (which can be installed on a standard PC) is stirring things up: a typical Linux distribution contains OpenOffice - which is based on StarOffice, and compatible with Microsoft Office - along with other word processors. In the right hands, Linux pushes Microsoft off the desktop along with the most common viruses, worms and spyware. Linux, the argument goes, might help children to grow up to be computer-literate rather than Microsoft-literate.

But only a few schools - perhaps 10 or so - are taking desktop Linux seriously. Steve Brown, the managing director of Novell UK, acknowledges this. "The majority of schools using Linux in the UK do so on their servers," he says, "and only a few - such as St Paul's Roman Catholic High School in Manchester - are using Linux on the desktop." (Novell bought SUSE, one of the leading Linux distributions, earlier this year.)

"It's incumbent on schools to teach generic IT skills," adds Brown. "Schools should teach word-processing skills but not limit this to teaching how to use Microsoft Word only. The students are the workforce of tomorrow and should be empowered to learn how to use different applications, and not be locked into thinking there is only one, proprietary, option."

However, Mark Chamberlain, the networks marketing manager at British-owned RM, an IT supplier to schools, says he has had no enquiries from teachers for Linux. "There just aren't the applications out there that will help do what they need to do in the classroom - deliver the curriculum," he says.

That's the stumbling block. A vast store of educational software works only with Windows, or Apple's Mac OS. But this hasn't put off Richard Rothwell, the head of computing at Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham. The 900-pupil school has three computer rooms, two of which offer Linux desktops with OpenOffice. There are 58 pupil-accessible Linux PCs out of 135 systems in the school.

"Using OpenOffice allows us to give the children legal copies of the software to take home and run on their machines," explains Rothwell. "Several schools, including ours, are establishing systems in which children can get cheap or free Linux systems. A local computer recycling company can provide systems that will run a standard Linux distribution for £70-£80." The alternative is parents buying academic copies of Microsoft Office for £100 - or pirating it from work.

Not all the educational software is suitable for Linux and nearly 80 PCs are still running Windows for an essential computer-aided design package, and an easy-to-use relational database manager. Another popular Windows program is Crocodile Physics, used extensively by secondary schools with sister programs for chemistry, maths and technology.

Dominic Sharratt, the marketing director of Crocodile Physics's publisher, Crocodile Clips, says the program is available for Windows and Mac OS. The company's software is being reworked for Linux; however. "As yet, the company has received few requests from the education market for Linux versions," he adds.

It's a computing Catch-22. If you want to save money, and improve security and stability by moving to Linux, software such as Crocodile Physics isn't yet available. But vendors won't produce Linux versions without real demand (although Corel is testing the market with a trial version of its word processing package WordPerfect).

What does Microsoft think about all the developments? Stephen Uden, the group manager for Education Relations, is stung by Sun's comment about reduced innovation. "We've been running a programme since the beginning of the year called 'Innovative Teachers'," he says, "to try to help teachers understand how to use software for teaching and learning."

The money-saving arguments are swiftly rebutted too: he says schools spend "way more" on non-Microsoft educational software. "We account for about 3 per cent of a school's IT budget," says Uden. "About 47 per cent goes on making the system work - support, setup and stuff like that." The rest comes from other software and hardware costs. You're in danger of saving a bit of money on the software but spending a lot more money to make the software work."

Handsworth Grammar School might argue with that. The school isn't looking to save money but can now invest more money. Open source will help meet new Government targets demanding an average computer-to-pupil ratio of 1:5 in secondary schools.

"Linux is developing to exploit the technology. Microsoft is developing to exploit the market," says Rothwell. "The bottom line for schools is that they need to look at how much they've spent on computing equipment over the past decade. Ask how much of an increased provision they've got for that, and realise that there are alternatives."

www.suse.co.uk; www.microsoft.com/uk/education; www.k12ltsp.org; www.crocodile-clips.com; www.sun.co.uk; www.schoolforge.org.uk/pn/

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