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Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 19:16 GMT
Digital learning plans approved
The government has given the go-ahead for the BBC's plans for an internet-based "digital curriculum" for schools.
But there are tough conditions attached, reflecting the furious opposition to the plans from commercial providers of educational resources.
The BBC's service will provide interactive learning materials via the internet to support the school curriculums across the UK.
The BBC said that the consent by the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, Tessa Jowell, would allow it "to play a significant role, as part of a public/private partnership, in the development and introduction of the world's first comprehensive 'curriculum online' service".
There are 18 conditions attached by Ms Jewell to her approval of the venture.
These include requirements to:
Ms Jowell said: "I've listened to the concerns of commercial providers of digital learning resources about the impact of Digital Curriculum will have on the market.
"The industry is a rapidly expanding one. There is room for everyone," she said.
"These conditions will prevent the BBC from dominating this market, but it's right that it should play an important role in a competitive and growing market for digital learning resources."
The BBC's director-general, Greg Dyke, said Ms Jowell's approval was "an important step forward in the BBC's education strategy".
"The opportunity to make a difference to learning in this country lies deep at the heart of the BBC's Reithian remit and over the past three years we have placed learning firmly at the heart of the BBC, across TV, radio and online."
He added: "By harnessing the power of digital media I hoped we could offer everyone, at each stage of their life, the opportunity to flourish through learning.
"This approval means we can start work on developing the service to make this a reality."
The £150m service, to be built up over five years, will cover subjects from across the curriculum at all levels, including minority subjects and materials for those with special educational needs.
Much of the investment will go on materials for the different curriculums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and materials in the Welsh language.
The BBC's joint director, factual and learning, Michael Stevenson, said: "This launches the BBC's education services into the digital world of the 21st Century and heralds an exciting new future.
"Over time the new interactive resources from both the BBC and the commercial sector will make a decisive impact on teaching and learning across the United Kingdom."
The BBC's plans have been opposed by the Digital Learning Alliance (DLA), a consortium of the leading UK educational software and book publishing industries.
It said on Thursday that it was "profoundly disappointed" by the announcement.
Alliance member Dominic Savage said the government had opted to allow the BBC to dominate the market.
"Evidence presented to the government by the DLA demonstrates that a BBC-dominated system will drive out commercial investment in educational software and is not in the best interests of schoolchildren throughout the UK or the industry as a whole," he said.
The shadow culture secretary, John Whittingdale, said the government was right to attach strong conditions to the licence.
But he added: "There remains real concern that these will be insufficient to prevent it competing unfairly with existing commercial providers of educational software.
"This is just another example of the BBC using money raised by the licence fee to offer services that potentially compete with the commercial sector."
Speaking at the Bett educational technology show in London, the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, announced an extra £280m for e-learning credits - money schools get to spend on educational software, alongside the free material from the BBC.
"With the funding already announced this provides £100m each year for the next three years to give schools access to online curriculum materials," he said.
"Schools now have easy access through Curriculum Online to a choice of innovative and professional digital resources to help transform classroom practice and raise standards still further."
The Liberal Democrats said the regulator Ofcom should keep an eye on what the BBC was doing.
Their spokesman Nick Harvey said: "Disgruntled operators could take their grievances to Ofcom as part of the review process.
"This would give the admirable army of small educational software writers, developers and suppliers some redress, as the industry fears it is at risk of being wiped out, or in some cases swallowed, by such a big player as the BBC."
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