Pirates, purpose, and programming: the business of education

Photo: ellalarose on Flickr

Talking about the UK education system isn’t very uplifting. Family income and where you live still seem to define how well you’re likely to do at school. In international rankings of reading, maths and science performance among 15- and 16-year-olds, little has improved despite government ambitions to make our schools among the best in the world by 2020. Meanwhile, there’s both a shortage of qualified teachers and a ever-tighter budget squeezes on the schools employing them, with almost two thirds expected to cut one or more teaching posts before September.

But another trend, said Joe Hallgarten, former director of Creative Learning and Development at the Royal Society of Arts — speaking at a recent On Purpose event — is the rise of organisations working outside or with schools. (The Charity Commission for England and Wales, for example, lists some 65,000 registered charities dedicated broadly to young people’s education.) They’re bringing writers and artists and scientists into classrooms. They’re helping kids start a business, or teaching them martial arts or philosophy. And they’re introducing them to modern-world skills like coding — “the new piano lessons”.

Learning differently

Teachers and parents must be overwhelmed by the options. But such organisations offer something that schools, for the most part, cannot.

Apps for Good, for example, “takes learning away from known solutions to known problems”, explained Heather Picov, UK managing director. Instead, children look at the messy problems of the world, and try to find their own solutions by building an app. (The idea of what to work on has to come from the child, because “so much in education is other people telling you what’s important”.) Often, said Picov, they’ll find the exact same app is already on the market. That’s okay. It’s all part of the process.

Technology is a powerful enabler for education, especially as it becomes ever easier to interact with it (touchscreen, voice, and so on). But young people need the tools not only to consume technology, but to make it, too. “It’s about connecting to technology and wanting to create with it”, said Joanna Bersin, head of education at Kano Computing, a product that allows you to build your own computer in a simple, fun way. It’s also about how you teach: targeting teenagers for instance means they, in turn, can train both their younger siblings and parents.

Sometimes the biggest value of an outside organisation is the “heavy lifting” and intensive support that teachers just don’t have capacity for. East London charity Hackney Pirates helps improve literacy and motivation of kids who are falling behind at school, offering small group or one-to-one help with reading and writing over the course of a school year. The learning environment is adventurous and imaginative (and pirate-themed, of course), offering that vital “spark of inspiration” for learning, explained founder and former teacher Catriona Maclay.

Making it sustainable

There’s no shortage of demand for such organisations; their challenge is financial sustainability. People often assume education is free, said Kathryn Skelton, strategy and insights lead at online learning platform FutureLearn: organisations may need to explain why they charge for some services.

A business model is hard to find when you work with children so intensively, said Maclay: parents usually aren’t in a position to pay for the service. Hackney Pirates relies partly on its trading subsidiary, a gift shop and cafe, to generate income, and is also funded by the Big Lottery Fund among others. As a charity that’s rooted in the local community, scaling up is “much harder” than if they were a business, said Maclay, though the organisation does have plans to open more centres.

For some organisations, crowdfunding — which is set to generate more income than any single charity by 2019 — is the obvious answer. Kano is one of the big success stories, raising US$ 1.5 million when it launched in 2013 on Kickstarter. Their computer kits are now sold in 86 countries.

Then there are freemium models, where some people pay for some things, but most pay nothing. FutureLearn sells certificates as well as newer offers like ID verification and transcripts. New learning management tools the company is developing to sell to  partners will also bring in revenue.

Getting back to basics

Learning can be a fuzzy thing: it’s hard to see that what you’re struggling with today will be beneficial in ten years’ time. At FutureLearn, the process is broken down into very small chunks, and students tick boxes to confirm they’ve mastered or understood each item. At Hackney Pirates, publishing and displaying the children’s work offers them something tangible for their efforts.

The question of impact also causes organisations to waver. Previously, Hackney Pirates used a number of indicators of success, but soon realised it was “really important to be specific”, said Maclay. Now, they focus on literacy, confidence and perseverance — these reflect the organisation’s core focus.

You need “discipline” to say no to projects or partners that aren’t the right fit, said Picov, or those that will stretch you too much as an organisation. With huge amounts of venture capital going into the edtech sector (around $4 billion in 2015, and $2 billion last year), it’s easy to get distracted by where the money is, said Skelton, or what the latest trend is. But, she said, “it’s really important to come back to your social purpose.”

That, perhaps, is the key. Social purpose is a key selling point for FutureLearn, prompting new partners to seek them out and helping them to start relationships with similar organisations. And it’s what drives the every staff member, said Skelton, running through the company’s DNA “like words through a stick of rock”. That, at least, is one constant in times of uncertainty.

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