An advisor to Becta, the education technology quango, has complained to the European Commission about its procurement process for firms to provide online learning platforms and content to British schools.
Of 119 suppliers who expressed an interest last year in tendering to supply Learning Platforms - personalised, online learning environments for school children - under a European framework agreement, Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) admitted just 10 suppliers into the framework when it was awarded last week.
Crispin Weston, managing director of Alpha Learning, said none of the suppliers awarded with places on the framework met mandatory criteria established at the start of the procurement to ensure their software programs were interoperable with one another, and could also work with electronic learning materials from any source.
Weston told The Register that he helped draw up the criteria Becta used to select suppliers for the Learning Platform framework, but was forced to complain about the quango to the EC Competition Commission because it subsequently overlooked the criteria when it appointed framework suppliers.
"EC regulations demand that criteria for [bidding] companies be announced beforehand and then implemented objectively. The purpose is to prevent back-stairs deals," said Weston, who had not bid for a place on the Learning Platform framework because his firm was too small to satisfy BECTA's other criteria.
"Becta realised that if it enforced the criteria then no-one would win [the procurement]," he said, "so they didn't enforce it."
European procurement rules stipulated that a company must only appoint suppliers who met the criteria set out in the original invitation to tender, said Weston.
The UK Treasury's government procurement sheriff, the Office of Government Commerce, had advised Weston that Becta had "very likely" breached EC procurement regulations, Weston said in his letter to the EC competition police.
"The British government is supplying £40 million to Local Authorities to acquire learning platforms, with the strong recommendation that they select successful candidates from Becta's approved list. Schools wishing to use platforms not selected by their local authority are free to do so but must find the money from other budgets," said Weston's letter to the EC.
Becta had overlooked two criteria that had demanded that firms implement technical standards that would ensure their software was interoperable - that it would work with that of any other firm supplying similar programs or electronic learning materials.
Weston maintained that most, if not all, of the 10 suppliers awarded places in the framework had not implemented the interoperability standards in their software.
Schools might get bad deals from suppliers if they implemented Learning Platforms that were not interoperable, said the complaint. The procurement had made it likely that large firms would provide most software for a school, and would make it very difficult for small, specialist suppliers.
Failing to impose standards for interoperability for educational software would also play into the hands of large suppliers, it said, because large firms would use proprietary standards that locked small suppliers out.
Becta might have waved through large suppliers that did not meet its technical criteria, but it stuck to another criteria that stipulated that small suppliers should be excluded from the competition, said Weston.
David Wimpress, chief executive of Netmedia Education, one of the firms awarded with places on the framework, said his software did satisfy the technical criteria singled out by Weston, and that Becta had asked if they were satisfied.
"This was the most rigorous testing regime we've ever experienced. There were at least 180 mandatory elements that where tested.
"I know for certain, because we collaborate with a number of our competitors, that a number on that [framework] list can do sequencing and runtime environments," said Wimpress, using the technical terms for the mandatory criteria Weston said where overlooked.
Gerard Toplass, managing director of Azzurri Education, another firm awarded a place on the framework last week, said Weston had not gone through Becta's tests for bidders, so he couldn't understand how stringent it was.
The final framework list mostly contained small and medium-sized firms, he said, and Weston always had the opportunity to work with other suppliers. Moreover, said Toplass, he had to make a crucial strategic decision to commit his £30m firm to bringing its learning platform software up to scratch with Becta's criteria.
"[Weston] didn't go through the testing. For a company like us, it was beyond belief. We had six programmers working 15 hours a day for six months. It cost us £250,000," said Toplass.
"We all had an equal chance on 28 February last year [when the invitation to tender was published," he added.
A spokesman for RM Plc could not confirm whether its platform software satisfied the criteria in question, but he said: "To my knowledge, we satisfied the criteria, and that's why we passed."
"My experience of Becta is that they're pretty hard-edged on these things," he said.
BECTA was unavailable to comment. The EC was unavailable to comment.®