Yet another row is brewing in time for Christmas over the scale and
nature of the BBC's involvement in commercial markets. This time the
battle is over educational software and the extent to which the BBC
should be allowed to use licence-fee money to set up a learning
management system and develop content for it.
Naturally the prime minister is determined to have a digital curriculum,
whether the schools on the receiving end have computers or not.
The move to a digital curriculum sounds like a big, bold, modernistic
plan. So you can be sure we are going to have one. Already funds have
been moved away from making conventional educational programmes even
though educational broadcasting would be perfectly serviceable and
probably more practical for many more years.
The real issue is what sort of market it will create and how open it is
going to be for private sector educational publishers. The details are
still sketchy, but private firms fear the worst.
Apparently the plan is for the BBC to spend as much as £140m a
year on creating electronic educational software, to be provided free to
To even things up a bit, the government, through the Department for
Education and Skills, is going to make around £80m worth of
funding available to schools in the form of electronic credits.
A host of questions are already forming in the minds of educational
Will the funds they receive be enough to create a market or will the BBC
be able to dominate the electronic curriculum? How long will the funds
for the private sector be guaranteed? And will the private producers be
guaranteed fair and non-discriminatory access to the BBC portal?
It all sounds very reminiscent of the battle for the new BBC digital
services, which will turn out to be a 100% victory for the BBC. You can
be absolutely certain that BBC 3 will be approved in March and launched
The electronic curriculum debate may not be as high profile as the
creation of digital services, but the issues are just as important.
European Union rules do allow state aid, but only if it does not affect
trading conditions and competition to the extent that would be "contrary
to the common interest".
The BBC may have to demonstrate that this plan does not amount to
effective dominance that would so disadvantage private publishers they
might as well be excluded from the market.
All is not yet lost. The plan needs the Department of Culture, Media and
Sport's approval before the BBC goes ahead. We can be certain that there
will be a vigorous investigation. Then DCMS will give its approval.
After that it could be a prosperous 2002 for lawyers specialising in EU
Presumably none of those involved, least of all the politicians, will
ponder the evidence that pupils learn more effectively from good
old-fashioned books than all the latest gee-whizz devices.