BESA (British Educational Suppliers Association) are likely to seek a Judicial Review of the government’s decision to fund Oak National Academy (Oak), but only if their members fund it. This may play well with their edtech and publisher members, but is a non-issue for the many companies who supply things like furniture, pens and paper, play equipment, etc. They and others wonder why BESA doesn’t use some of the cash in the bank (£1.5m in March 2021, their worst financial year for a decade). A win won’t mean the end of Oak, as the DfE can simply re run the consultation process and come to the same conclusion, so either way win or lose, the outcome for BESA will be suboptimal.
BESA have been comparing Oak to BBC Jam and the campaign by BESA’s former DG to close it (c. 2005). I was involved in this campaign something that included making multiple FOI requests to rhe BBC. Much of the campaign against what was originally called the Digital Curriculum was run by RM, long-term BESA members, and at the time, a content partner for BBC Jam (along with Pearson, Granada Learning, 2Simple and other lesser known, now defunct companies).
BBC Jam was killed off by the BBC’s Board because it breached the specific competition exemptions granted by the EU and UK governments. The numbers quoted vary but from my FOI requests I think it’s clear that BBC Jam cost almost £150m for content that was never used by a single UK student or teacher. Indeed it can never be used, although the BBC hoped to sell the content commercially outside the UK. Had the BBC not shut it down the potential fine was three times what they had actually spent.
Oak, on the other hand, has been a success story, delivering over 150 million lessons during and since the Covid crisis. And while BESA were campaigning against the BBC 15 years ago, they failed to get involved in important BBC pilot initiatives like BBC Backstage, a developer network to create a community, ‘including those working in education, with business opportunities based on building prototypes which manipulate the way the BBC’s content and services are displayed and used’.
So why are BESA pursuing the DfE?
First, BESA sees Oak as a form of state aid that could damage the market and therefore the business interests of their members. Yet Oak have committed to making reviewing their licensing options that could allow BESA members to potentially use it in their own products. Oak is also commissioning £8m of third party content over the next 12 months, a substantial portion of which could come from BESA members. In 2021, BESA promoted the DfE/NESTA Edtech Innovation Fund – state aid – and indeed, many of the companies awarded the taxpayer cash subsidy were BESA members like Educake (£89k), Pobble (£100k), Hegarty Maths (now part of Sparx, £100k), MangaHigh (£100k), and Edval (now owned by TES, £100k). Of this NESTA were to receive £2.6m of the £4.6m just to run the project, the total fund of which was more than Oak received for its first 12 months (£4.3m in 2020, £12.1m in 2021).
Second, do BESA fear that Oak exposes the relative failures of their members’ products and services in edtech over decades? Oak was a charity startup with a WordPress site that quickly grew into an operation that delivered over 150m lessons, 25m minutes of video (per day at its peak), to over 1m students each day. How many BESA member products were this widely used and why, despite their lobbying and ‘thought leadership’, did BESA and its members get edtech so wrong? After decades and £bn’s of spending on edtech, the success of Oak no doubt helped persuade the government to legislate that in a crisis like Covid teachers and schools must keep teaching and to do that they need to use effective, accessible edtech. Many in edtech and at BESA thought this was going to be the defining moment for edtech. They were right but not in the way they’d hoped. Even the veritable BBC, who had spent over £250m in edu in the last decade, could only deliver about 25% of what Oak did. The reality facing BESA and its members is that a new organisation, Oak, has shifted the entire landscape and discourse about edtech and for many that is very uncomfortable.
Third, BESA is querying Oak’s transparency. Yet all Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB) have to disclose far more than BESA or most of their members ever do. I have read ten years of BESA’s and several of their members’ accounts. A few like BESA provide audited accounts, but many take an exemption and publish a minimalist set of accounts, often just an abbreviated balance sheet. NDPBs have to disclose senior management team earnings, something I have never seen in BESA’s accounts.
BESA also have the role of Secretariat to the Education and Edtech All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG), part of their lobbying and influence strategy. APPGs don’t have the power of Select Committees, but they do wield considerable behind-the-scenes influence. Running an APPG costs money and is regulated by the (weak) Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards. BESA subcontracts some of the work for the two APPGs to a PR consultancy called Ranelagh Political Communications (another unsecure website), who admitted when asked, that the 2019 and 2020 accounts, ‘were inadvertently not completed’. Worst of all, how can a group that claims to represent the best of British education, in their role with the Edtech APPG not have an actual website (there is a dire unsecure one for the Education APPG)? The Edtech APPG’s only publicly report, Lessons from Lockdown, is only available on BESA’s website, and was recently updated to acknowledge BESA’s financial support, which until I asked was absent. What is even more shocking is that the information about the latest Education APPG Green Paper about SEND, is not on the APPG website but information is only available for BESA members via their website! This is either a real conflict of interest or serious ineptitude on behalf of BESA and Ranelagh, or both.
If BESA want transparency, start at home. State your Director General salary and the real cost of running both APPGs. I could go further and ask how, after founding BETT, Education World Forum, and GESS (Dubai), BETT is now owned by Hyve, EWF by a company owned by the former DG of BESA, and GESS by listed Tarsus Group?
My view is that BESA has lost its way. Its Code of Practice and governance is weak, it lacks transparency, and seems unable to to identify which trends and issues are seriously significant to its members, like a minimum standard for edtech evidence, the 2023 Teachers’ Pension Scheme review that could see employer contributions go to 30%, the phasing out of Windows 10 and 11, and so on.
To recover the vibrant, important voice BESA once had, they need to reinvent the culture and ethos that invented BETT. That’s the best way to get out of their current jam.
BESA have initiated a judicial review of OAK, at an estimated cost of £1m. Obviously there is support from BESA’s members, but it seems hard to see how with so many far more financially significant challenges facing the businesses supplying education that this seems a good use of their limited resources. My take is at this stage all BESA and the other litigants (inc. interested parties) applied for a request to submit a judicial review, but it’s up to the court to decide there are grounds to for them to formally launch the process. I doubt BESA will succeed (nor I suspect will the NEU’s claim of being an interested party, unless they can very specifically prove they have what is known as standing), but what has become increasingly disheartening in the debate about OAK is the almost entire absence of any civilised balanced discourse. The worst and most partisan example I have seen is Episode 260 of the Edtech Podcast, titled Should we be worried about clickbait curriculums. Add to this mix frequent, intemperate ad hominem attacks on OAK’s senior staff by anti-OAK activists on social media, and you have a very unpleasant, ill-informed and politically charged climate that has crowded out serious discourse.
In 2103 I became a minority shareholder in edapt UK Ltd, a company founded by John Roberts, who is currently the Product and Engineering Director at Oak National Academy.
I have also elected to make a minor editorial change to an earlier version after feedback from a reader.