The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), founded almost 50 years ago, is the UK’s main education business membership association. Today BESA plays a significant role in education and increasingly edu politics, but is it overreaching its remit?
Aside from promoting members’ direct commercial interests, BESA’s Articles of Association (updated 2018) note that it will, “promulgate the collective views and interests of its members….by all means possible and make representations to local and central government representatives, departments and agencies and any other persons or bodies whomsoever on matters affecting the collective interests of its members”.
Straightforward, until we get to Oak National Academy (ONA). In the last two years, ONA has supported schools, students, families and communities through the Covid crisis by delivering more online lessons and support materials than major public and private incumbents like the BBC and Pearson. The government is now switching ONA’s status from a charity to a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) giving ONA a sound financial future under the umbrella of government funding.
But success also creates opposition and BESA is campaigning to force the government to rescind its decision. Why? Do their arguments stack up and is it the best strategy for their members?
ONA’s success is due to factors such as:
- Accessible, structured content with no user sign-in required (part of a wider approach to accessibility)
- Content partnerships with some of the UK’s leading educational organisations, e.g. MATs such as ARK, Dixons and United Learning, the National Literacy Trust, Youth Sports Trust and others
- Sector and Curriculum advisory groups that include NEU, ASCL, Chartered Council of Teaching along with almost 40 general and specialist subject advisors
- Support from major tech companies Atlassian, Google, Slack, MUX, Vimeo and CloudFlare
- A zero rating for ONA’s content by the major UK mobile telcos making it free to access, including for those without a data plan for mobile devices
- It filled the gap between the start of lockdown (Mar 2020) and the compulsory introduction of online teaching in England at the start of the 2021/2022 school year, and kickstarted the many schools who were unprepared for it
- It also made up for the large amount of edtech content shown to be irrelevant and neither cost effective, accessible nor appropriate to the realities facing schools, students and families.
BESA’s campaign materials sent to members included a template letter to MPs and a summary of research done this year. Having read it, I agree with the member who leaked it to me that BESA’s core argument against ONA – that the content is free – is, ‘at best, muddled’. On the one hand, BESA says, “teachers don’t value free content”, on the other, “free content is a threat to paid content”. BESA’s research also suggests that secondary schools and primary academies simply want more money to spend on digital content. Of course schools want larger budgets but would they actually spend them on digital products and is ONA really a major competitor to products from BESA members? Let’s look at the case for and against:
- Market Impact
Most of the UK edtech community, including BESA members, made their materials available for free during lockdown. Pre- and post-lockdown, these same companies almost all use a freemium business model, with free content leading their offer to schools, in the hope that a small percentage (often as low as 2%) will convert to paying for premium content or features. I’d argue that ONA has boosted digital adoption and transformation in education; the issue is the challenge to freemium and overhyped digital content and tools that promise to ‘revolutionise education’. Further, as an NDPB, ONA is likely to make its content and research freely available to UK edtech companies (inc. BESA members) via APIs, a benefit to UK edtech and schools and the opposite of BESA’s claim that ONA will damage the domestic market.
Almost half of BESA’s members are suppliers of non-digital products and several of its largest members are private equity-backed or listed foreign companies for whom ONA simply isn’t on their radar. Meanwhile there is the 9% fall in real terms in funding for education, as the IFS have highlighted , i.e. the value of the domestic market for BESA members is shrinking. If BESA’s argument is that free resources are of little use or value, then the operations of ONA are of little strategic significance in a declining market.
There is also the impact on spending for resources and materials caused by the 10% increase (to 26.6%) in employer contributions to teachers’ pensions. With salaries and pensions now accounting for almost 80% of the edu budget, the remaining 20% is where the cuts are being made. Surely this cost of over £1.5bn p.a., which will eventually come out of the education budget will impact BESA’s members far more directly than the minor cost of funding ONA?
Another BESA member told me that their edtech business saw little or no benefit from their membership during lockdown and thought the current focus on ONA ‘ludicrous’. They plan to cancel their membership and spend the £1500+ fee on something more relevant to their business, such as a scholarship, instead.
Instead of fighting ONA, BESA should be building its membership; for example by looking at the failure of the £400m p.a. National Tutoring Programme (NTP). This is a time limited initiative, but the overall sector is worth as much as £7bn. The bulk of existing SME providers were shut out of the NTP, largely because the sector is represented by the new and inexperienced Tutors Association. Recruiting from the huge number of SME companies in this sector would be a smart, positive strategy that builds on BESA’s existing expertise.
Other than Google, none of ONA’s major technology partners are BESA members and ONA’s curriculum partners represent the best of the education sector in England, a constituency not covered by BESA’s mandate.
- Transparency and Disclosure
As an NDPB, ONA will be subject to much higher transparency and disclosure requirements than BESA, including being subject to FOI requests (BESA has just made one trying to challange the DfE’s decision about ONA) and having to disclose the salaries of senior management. Neither of these transparency and many other NDPB transparency requirements apply to BESA.
ONA has become, in two years, larger (by employees and turnover) than BESA. ONA’s success challenges the narrative pushed by BESA that the products and services developed by its members are leading-edge and what schools want. Yet the most successful UK edtech startup of the last 20 years, Twinkl, has a low-cost subscription business model that provides easily accessible content (like ONA) – and it’s not a BESA member.
BESA is the Secretariat to the House of Commons Education Select Committee (HCESC). Should a private sector lobby group, whose remit is promoting the interests of the UK’s commercial education providers (inc. via tie ups with the Department for International Trade, Foreign Office and BEIS) be providing the services that underpin the most important cross-party education group in Westminster? Surely there is a potential conflict between this role and the commercial needs of BESA’s members. Would we accept an education union like the NEU or NASUWT as Secretariat to the HCESC, and if not, why a private sector lobby group?
I have huge respect for Caroline Wright and her team at BESA, but I think their campaign against ONA is misguided, nor do I think they should be Secretariat to the HCESC. Instead, I believe that BESA should extend their constituency (possibly including getting ONA as a member) and then using their expertise to help prevent problems in the edu market, like those at the NTP. BESA, I suggest you work with and support ONA, as cooperation is a better route to helping your members, schools and students, than conflict.
At a time of global crisis, we need more goodwill, so let’s make edtech love not war.
BESA now seem to have decided that rather than just campaigning on their members behalf openly against ONA, they are also allowing their staff to sock-puppet the DfE with FOI requests. I’m sure BESA will claim their staff member was acting purely in a private capacity and that it is completely coincidental that the request was made the same month the employee started work at BESA. If Caroline Wright and BESA are ‘shocked’ at the lack of evidence around the DfE’s decision, maybe they could apply the same standards to the lack of evidence about many of the edtech products and services sold by their members and whether these are will have any greater educational salience and longevity than fidget spinners?