Right at the start of the crisis the UK Office of Budget Responsibility predicted that in the 2nd quarter of 2020 output in education would be down by 90%.Published c.24 May, the scale of the estimated downturn was dramatic news for those in the business of education. It should also have been a clarion call for much serious joined-up thinking in Whitehall.
Since then it looks like the OBR’s estimates are largely correct and in some parts it may even be worse; edtech for example. Since the crisis many edtech providers have made the almost fatal mistake of making their products free for users. This may seem wise and altruistic but in reality it will accelerate the demise of many players, mostly those providing content as well as those selling personalisation systems.
There is no such thing as free and companies who are doing so assume that their sales to a grateful post-Covid 19 sector will more than offset the costs. Few have done any sophisticated financial modelling around this assumption – given the very real costs of server space/power, staff onboarding, etc., any return must be predicated on significant conversion rates from a market with steadily falling per-pupil prices. With rates for email, social media, paid search and online campaigns stuck south of 1% this seems unlikely, but what will make this triply challenging are the economic theories of Choice Paradox and Opportunity Cost. Choice Paradox is where you have lots of providers trying to sell similar products; this oversupply makes choice difficult and creates buyer anxiety and indecision. Opportunity Cost relates to the next best alternative foregone; if you chose something new, e.g. a K-6 maths product, what’s the cost of the next best alternative (almost certainly the maths product you use now)?
Free in edtech will be a death sentence for most of the companies now offering it. A far better approach and one you don’t hear often in the UK is what DreamBox Learning (K-6 maths) are doing in the US. Instead of free they are focusing on their existing paid customers, helping them to make the product accessible to more of their users. This took user numbers from 3 to 5 million and turbo-charged their renewals. In an edsurge interview, DreamBox’s CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson commented, “If we deliver some value to them in this crisis, we hope we become an essential part of their mathematics strategy and practice, and when it comes to renewal opportunities, district leaders will consider DreamBox more seriously and with more intentionality than they might otherwise have.” The simple lesson here is that if you have paying customers, focus on them. Don’t drive the value out of your relationship (and business) by giving away what they have been paying for.
Government has a big role to play right now but the DfE seems to lurch from silence to overhyped ‘solution’.A good example is the DfE’s emergency £100m to help schools and disadvantaged students. £6m is for a series for demonstrator schools to share best practice. Yet several similar iterations, including ones from government including City Learning centres (CLCs), Hub Schools program (eneded in 2010), the Harvesting Technology Grant (ended in 2012), and programs from quangos like BECTA (closed in 2011). Even commercial players have tried, for example the Pearson Champion Schools Program (created by Jodie Lopez, whose recent blog is a must read) and for years there has been a host of grassroots initiatives like the TeachMeet takeovers at BETT.
Another chunk of the £100m is for schools to implement GSuite and Microsoft 365, both of which have been free for years. If a school hadn’t implemented either of these pre-Covid, then instead of giving them money to spend on consultants charging up to £2k per day, OFSTED should rate their management as inadequate. Most of the money is actually for devices and connectivity for schools and disadvantaged students – a good idea even if it has been delivered slowly. The current global demand for low-cost devices is probably 2-5 times current supply and capacity, so the fact that the government has managed to get over 140,000 low-cost devices is something of an achievement.
When you add to £100m the £630m spent on edtech, the total is still less than 1.5% of the £45bn the government in England spent on K12 education in 2019/20. Yet with such a small level of investment the government, schools and the wider community seem to expect that edtech can make a significant impact on the current challenges to education. I think edtech can have far more than a 1% impact but that requires several things:
- Some strategy and leadership from central government and the DfE, not ill-considered panic measures. As a simple starting point for those schools who aren’t prepared or can’t seem to get themselves sorted out, why not say to parents, “If your school isn’t ready or doing enough, use Oak National Academy or BBC Bitesize for all your children?”
- Make use of edtech an accessible requirement for teachers and schools. Unions will resist this, but if a teacher is given access to edtech and won’t use it, this should be reflected in their performance evaluation. Similarly, OFTED inspections should, as they previously did, include the use of edtech. Again if poorly used then this should be highlighted as something needing improvement and reflected in the rating.
- Stop the Mickey Mouse funded programs from the DfE and NESTA. There is ample research and evidence about what works. Stop recreating the wheel – if you want to run these sorts of initiatives start doing some real commercial due diligence. That would stop scarce taxpayer money being given to businesses based outside the UK, or who have filed dormant company accounts or who are in the process of acquisition, etc. Open Data APIs must also be a prerequisite so that independent researchers can try to evaluate what works and doesn’t.
- Renegotiate teacher contracts. Unions who play an important HR role in representing their members have been allowed to achieve terms and conditions that are incompatible with online education. Being able to say that your 1265-hour, 195-days-a-year contract allows you not to teach online is unacceptable; online teaching should be a mandatory requirement and not an optional (extra pay) extra!
- Address poor procurement – schools and school groups demand ridiculous discounts from edtech providers and then don’t order enough to justify this. Competition law will drive what’s deliverable but if schools keep buying poorly and driving prices to unaffordable levels, they shouldn’t be surprised when their only long-term options come from major international companies whose ‘solutions’ (inc. edtech, CPR and assessment) lack innovation and market fit. There are toolkits that can be used to help schools justify (on educational grounds) what they want to buy and so procure smarter, but they aren’t used.
We have put billions into edtech over the last 20 years and most has been wasted. The real problem isn’t bad products (of which there are plenty) or a lack of guidance and funding; what’s wrong is that we have chosen to make the incentives all carrot and no stick. Simply giving schools and educators edtech doesn’t mean they will use it and having no sanction when they don’t takes away a core lever to try and achieve the outcomes underpinning the investment.
Why have private schools adapted to online education more rapidly and successfully than government schools? It’s very simple. If they didn’t, their customers (parents) would have stopped paying, lots of teachers would have lost their jobs and far more schools (than the estimated 50 so far) would have closed. Private schools have always spent less per student on edtech as their model of labour inefficiency (small class sizes) reduced the need. Yes, their students have the devices, but this hasn’t been the driver behind their successful adaptation. Government schools and teachers on the other hand have been fully funded and paid despite a sizeable minority manifestly failing to even try to teach students. Yes, many teachers have ignored their unions and done amazing work, but the huge differences in what is provided and what is being done by students in the two sectors is too vast to get mired in the usual politics of state versus private education. We won’t see a progression in the ‘evolutionary fitness’ of government schools until there’s more than just incentives (carrots) to do so, there must also be sticks. The ‘badges for all’ ethos so widespread in state education doesn’t cut it during a crisis.
Where to next?
- Summer schools (unlikely)
- Massive tutoring? £1bn over 3 years just announced. Previously tried by Gordon Brown and didn’t deliver – serious problems with recruitment and quality with most tutors ending up coming from schools where students were apparently not learning adequately in the first place. Isn’t this a job for the teachers we are already paying? BEIS’s threats to criminally prosecute most of the leading tutoring agencies under the provisions of an outdated 1970s labour law have hardly enamoured the sector to government. To deliver this scale of ambition the main mode of support has to be online tutoring and there are only 3 companies I can think of who are already doing this with any technical sophistication or at scale, these are
– Tom Hooper’s Third Space Learning (primary maths where NESTA are an investor)
– Bertie Hubbard’s MyTutor (who recently raised £4m in a round led by Mobeus Equity Partners bringing the total raised to £14m)
– Nick Green/Leo Evan’s SPIRES (for disclosure I’m a tiny investor).
- Hybrid education – a few days in school and the rest at home. The most likely model until the development of a vaccine or until a decision is arrived at that the long-term economic and social cost of lockdown is politically and economically unaffordable
- More success at Oak National Academy who as a 12-week-old startup have delivered twice as many lessons as BBC Bitesize, the later having been around for over 20 years and had more than £100m of BBC/taxpayer funding. On 17/06/2020 ONA had during the school day over 35k concurrent users! OAK and edtech companies like TWINKL show that what schools, teachers and students want is simplicity and high-quality content not overhyped/under delivering, AI/VR/AR adaptive/personalised products whose greatest relevance is to a game of edtech bullshit bingo
- For most edtech startups, the future is grim and very few if any will qualify for the government’s £750m Future Fund to startup funding rescue package which will probably end up funding “a load of AI-enabled dog dating apps“!
- More flexible teacher employment contracts? Unlikely given the success of education unions in achieving inflexible conditions. This will protect teacher jobs in state schools but it is damaging the education and life chances of millions of children. At some point we may see the current government take on this challenge but I suspect not anytime soon
- Prepare to be underwhelmed, but only in the short-term by TicTok’s newly announced focus on education (50bn+ views of 15 second videos with the hash tags #LearnOnTikTok and #EduTok). Expect to see a dramatic shift to quality professional content after Tik Tok’s owners ByteDance appointed Kevin Mayer (ex-Disney) as their COO in May.
Let me know what you think?