A local primary school here in Otago has been developing capacities in the use of Free Software in their school. I have met the principal of Warrington Primary, Nathan Parker. He came around to my house one afternoon after work. We drank liquorish tea and shared a few tips on the use of GIMP. I got to hear a lot of the ins and outs of the school’s progress, and I honestly think they have found a way to do it right with Free Software in Schools.

Computer World recently published an encouraging article about their developments:

The school is deploying the GNU/Linux operating system, aiming to have free software across the board by 2010, and the complete switch to Linux has been approved by the MoE, says the school’s principal, Nathan Parker.

“We are saving the government money,” says Parker. “We are saving them 13 [Microsoft] licences this year, and hopefully we will be down to zero next year.”

I hear that Nathan and his colleagues have even been rebuilding old computers and providing them to families in the school! That’s pretty nice.

What’s really great to see is the fact that Nathan and his colleagues actually knew very little about computers and networks before they started this. I think Nathan said it was a parent that introduced Ubuntu to them, and the social aspect of it clicked. Now Nathan and his colleagues have been rapidly building up a self sufficiency in computing not only in the school but in the community around them.

Some might say that makes them vulnerable in a global economy. They will have difficulty finding staff and support people for their alternative approaches. The kids will eventually be faced with a new school or employer who has never heard of free software or open standard formats. And they have more work ahead in trying to fit with the Ministry of Education’s approach. There are a few educational ways to look at those issues.. it seems we only look at it one business case way.

One thing that strikes me as VERY concerning in the article is the suggestion that the Ministry have not considered Free Software before:

In terms of future costs for supporting a non-Microsoft environment, he says, the MoE is willing to investigate situations it has not already covered.

But it’s encouraging to think that little Warrington might actually be driving a Ministry rethink!

Ideally (I think) schools should be offering educational experiences in all three computing platforms with a preference for free software. We need to equally acknowledge that there are some people who don’t mind paying for Macintosh, others Microsoft, and some quite enjoy the uniqueness of GNU/Linux.. we should preference the free software because, well.. its free, accessible, and affordable to those who can’t see the sense in paying $1000-$4000 for a personal computer that could just as easily cost $100 – $500 and that evidently encourages computing self sufficiency and the wider recognition and use for open standard formats. (Anyone having trouble opening Vista files lately? Here we go again).