In 2019 the Labour Party, then led by Jeremy Corbyn, pledged at its annual conference to, ‘abolish private schools and integrate them into the government sector’. This spawned an extensive social media campaign with the hashtag #AbolishEton’, which was for a short time led by an activist teacher from London called Holly Rigby. Ms Rigby, part of the Labour Against Private Schools group posited in an interview that the way to kill off private schools was by ‘slow euthanasia’ (increasing regulation, removing their charitable status and ramping up their taxes) or simply by expropriating their assets on behalf of government schools. In the 2019 election, Labour were routed and Ms Rigby disappeared from the #AbolishEton campaign.
What has this to do with edtech? For several years I have kept a weather eye on what became EtonX, Eton’s foray into edtech since I was asked by a friend (with a stellar edtech career) to meet the people behind what eventually became EtonX. Having attended a slightly similar school in Australia (as the scholarship kid of a taxi driver and nurse) I wasn’t overawed by the grandeur, although seeing the ‘beaks’ (teachers) wearing gowns surmounted by stiff white winged-collar shirts and white bow ties was amusing to someone who had to occasionally wear a kilt, hobnail boots, spats, sporran, khaki shirt, battle dress, tie and a beret topped with a red pompom as part of my school uniform.
In the meeting with a senior beak and Eton’s legal advisor, I was regaled by how wonderfully successful Eton’s edtech venture was certain to be. However, when the beak mentioned that they were considering licensing their brand and project to Pearson, I blurted out, ”But to do that you’d have to be a complete fuckwit!”. The colour drained from the beak’s face until his pallid complexion almost matched his tie and shirt. As befits an Eton gentleman he didn’t immediately throw me out on my ear, but I bet he wanted to. The quivering lip of their high-powered advisor was the legal equivalent of a belly laugh. Unsurprisingly I was never asked back again although I kept running into the senior beak, once a few months later coming out of the CEO’s office in Pearson’s building in the Strand.
EtonX never really seemed to build anything substantive let alone profitable, despite the amount of money (from the post-tax income of their students’ parents) they invested in it. I read a few years back that it had been effectively banned from its only real market in China and since then it had drifted off my radar. Then I saw someone from EtonX was speaking at an event I’m also attending so I navigated back to their filings at Companies House. In the UK most companies, especially those in edtech, file minimalist accounts. But the devil was in the detail as I describe below but first, an aside.
In a recent SchoolsWeek story about the founder of CenturyTech, Ms Lakhani claimed it was, “the big AI company not just in the UK, but Europe…and frankly the US”. Yet later in the story they mentioned that the company file unaudited accounts and use the exemption in the Companies Act 2006 for small companies which have a turnover of <£10.2m, assets of < £5.1m and less than 50 employees.
I’m pretty adept at reading the tea leaves of the filings at Companies House, which is where we get back to EtonX.
In their accounts for the year to 31 August 2022 (filed 10 March 2023), it says in the Director’s Report in the Going Concern section (page 4 of 14) that EtonX:
- Posted losses of £1.36m (2022) and £1.33m (2021)
- Had net assets of £39k (2022) and £252k (2021)
- Had additional investment from Eton of £1.05m in 2021/22 accounting year as working capital for the company to be wound up
- ‘During the year all the staff had been made redundant and EtonX Limited is now winding down its existing business and contracts’
- ‘EtonX is no longer a going concern’
Boom! After ten years and over £9m, the high profile startup out of England’s most iconic private school was bust.
However, as Tim Steer wrote in his 2018 seminal book, The Signs Were There, EtonX’s demise was as obvious as a hearse outside a brothel to anyone with a basic knowledge of accounting. A great example is how the final accounts list a team of ten with a total salary bill of £657k, an average of c.£66k per employee for an unprofitable, decade-old edtech enterprise. I’m sure Eton provides a decent education, and to put this to good use they might want to take some advice from the 52% of their students who scored A* in A Level Economics in 2022 (they don’t seem to offer GCSE or A Level Accounting, although they should).
Farewell EtonX, your courage and determination are to be admired, but you seemed unable to make a substantive educational impact nor a profit so I don’t think your demise will be much lamented.
Rather than promising to end private schools, Labour should perhaps mandate they also all invest in edtech, much like their plan to make UK pension funds invest 5% of their clients’ assets in early-stage companies. If Eton can’t turn a profit in edtech, I suspect very few could. This may be a more painful policy proposal than adding VAT to independent school fees and make Jeremy’s day.
PS Good luck to Eton who are a finalist in the 2023 TES Schools Awards, in the category of Best Use of Technology, which will be announced at a gala awards ceremony on June 23rd. Tickets prices for an individual attendee are £220 plus VAT.