Talking museums and education in chilly Brighton

We’re spending a couple of days at a very unseasonable seaside – in Brighton for the ACE conference. We’re here to meet delegates from museums, galleries and visitor attractions to talk about how we can usefully share with them our education expertise. It’s still a new world for us, but one that we’ve been enjoying getting to know over the last few months.

Brighton: not that snowy really.

The sector where we cut our teeth – educational publishing – and GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) should have some important things in common. Both, after all, have an educational mission at their heart. Both come into contact with a very broad cross-section of the public; and both are key to the transmission of our shared culture.

We’re here because we see a great opportunity for these organisations, with their archives, expert staff and authoritative reputations to raise the bar in engaging and rigorous curriculum education. So it’s interesting to see who else is here – and who isn’t.

There’s a clear channel for trade publishers who are looking to sell through museum shops. Established agencies select and sell beautifully designed books to generalist shop buyers. And of course, there are exhibition catalogues and some other specialist bespoke publishing.

But the question of how to tap into the hoards of knowledge, passion and resource these institutions hold, and bring it into classrooms to engage students throughout the curriculum in a way that works both for schools and institutions – that’s the question we’re starting to answer.

BETT: Learning from start-ups

Bett has always showcased some new technologies which have lasted, and others which have not. There was palpable enthusiasm the year that interactive whiteboards were suddenly everywhere; a few years later, long queues but ultimately less enthusiasm for demos of new interactive tables. One year the hall was garlanded with eerie 3D TVs that didn’t need special glasses, but did require paracetamol and a good sit down. To a greater or lesser extent, these technologies took a grip of the show for a year or two; only a few took a hold of the classroom.

Whether the technology on the stands is splashy or subtle, disruptive or incremental, BETT reveals the competitive response. The small new entrants with the new technology – or new pedagogy, or fashion – at the core of their offering; and the established players who respond either to threat or to opportunity. Delegates from larger companies can be airily dismissive of a certain type of ‘one-man band’; beguiled by the craft of another.

If there are questions about which technologies survive, and which new entrants succeed, then there’s a question too about how the big players make a decent fist of the new. I’ll not rehearse adventures in SCORM, everyone’s perennial Planning Tool or the dash from Flash; instead, I want to ask how, given the chance, the new kids would set about developing and running the grown-ups’ products.

Children look on at a technical demo at BETT

The advantages of a small team are pretty clear: focus, energy, and a shared vision. Nobody’s excluded from the conversation by jargon – instead, collective understanding means they’re empowered by a shared language, coining new terms that help them communicate more quickly and effectively. Neither are there the balanced antagonisms necessary in a bigger organisation – the small team pulls together, and finds that almost every direction it goes in is forward.

The startup is free to trim its sails to fit the shifting wind. Its people can turn as one to pursuing its goal, and it lacks many of the constraints of a larger organisation. Some of this freedom will give the startup pure advantages: it can expect to have able and committed staff with excellent understanding of business goals and how they, and the team they are in, can achieve them. (There’s nobody who’s putting off reading about the advantages of QTI–SCORM integration till the first seven minutes of next month’s steering meeting.)

Other freedoms that are features of small organisations build up problems for later, for example: pricing structures or promises to early adopters that gouge future income; conflicting signals to the market about key brand features; and high dependence on individuals rather than systems. But actually, it’s often OK for the small organisation to accumulate some of these deferred problems. Early success will give it scope in its first maturity to make the changes it needs.

A small team discuss a content product at BETT, looking at it on an interactive whiteboard.
If we consider a particular project of our larger organisation as though it were instead the bread and butter of the smaller, it’s obvious that some pressures fall away. The project doesn’t have any ‘fitting’ to do; there’s no fear it will trespass on other projects, or pollute a brand. There’s nobody giving the project a nebulous 20% of their time; there aren’t likely to be departmental dependencies, and lines of demarcation aren’t an issue between the members of the small team: there’s little duplication of effort, while the gaps are too small for all that much to fall between.

And so the small organisation, if it’s working well, ends up with a product which is highly customer-focused. Features are in on merit, and some bespoke enhancements which the bigger organisation may have costed and rejected have made it in. There was no catalogue deadline to miss, and anyway, with most of the market untapped, features aren’t the limiting factor for monthly sales; it’s OK to hold back new feature releases until they’re ready.

Can these attributes be brought into larger organisations? More to the point, can they be brought to product teams? Perhaps not all of them, and not every time; but if the ambition is to compete with the dedicated providers, it’s not enough just to rely on the strengths that come with size and experience. We also need to identify the right freedoms (and the rigid limits) for an innovating team. With the right devolution of responsibility, that team will then be able to play the little guy at their own game. It will generate problems, but these will be small and solvable. On the other hand, it will produce bold, relevant publishing.

A Key Month for Educational Research

This month sees the BERA 2017 conference and the ResearchED 2017 national conference take place. A huge number of teachers, educational researchers and other workers in the education world will come together to hear, critique and reflect upon the latest research and the impact it could have on the classroom.

This wide-ranging interest in educational research is a powerful recent development led by organisations like ResearchEd and the new College of Teaching, whose interim journal contains among other things this article [member only access] from Stuart Kime on the importance of establishing a culture of evidence-informed education. Kime’s piece responds to Ben Goldacre’s challenge to the education system from back in 2013.

The big challenges are still the same:

  • how do you sort the good research from the bad;
  • how do busy teachers carve out enough time to make good use of the good research even supposing they can identify it;
  • and how do you prevent commercial organisations from gaming the system to their own advantage?

Medical research – usually the system cited by those in education as one in which there is a much better established culture of evidence-informed practice – still has all three problems, after all. Goldacre’s recent audit of the research practices of pharmaceutical companies (specifically how open they are about research they fund which does not support or which undermines claims made about drugs) is a great response to this problem and it would be fascinating to see something similar in education.

For now, as well as the work being done by the organisations mentioned above, there is of course the Education Endowment Foundation and its invaluable Toolkit, which seeks to identify the strength of evidence, the level of impact and the cost of various interventions. The latest round of funding is available now and they are particularly looking for applications covering Key Stage 2 and 3 Maths, Character / Essential Life Skills and Behavioural Interventions.

Two educational research reports you may have missed (and one you probably didn’t)

Working in educational publishing, or in any part of the education sector which isn’t 100% focused on policy and research, always makes me feel like I’m playing catch up with ‘what we know’ about the impact of different approaches to teaching and learning.

Unless there’s a huge government funding drive (like the current and increasingly controversial maths mastery textbook funding scheme, and the ‘ESPO’ phonics tender a few years ago) it’s up to each publisher to work out the likely impact of a research or policy initiative on teacher behaviour. Which of the hundreds of new reports are going to impact your decision-making this year? Three recent publications caught my eye.

Firstly, this Education Endowment Foundation report on the impact of dialogic teaching. The report starts by noting that there has been good evidence about the impact of cognitively challenging classroom talk. I imagine they are thinking of research-based programmes such as cognitive acceleration and philosophy for children. This, however, is the ‘first trial’ of a specific approach to dialogic teaching (it comes with materials and CPD) and the results are very promising.

The trial found consistent, positive effects in English, science and maths for all children in Year 5, equivalent to about 2 months additional progress.

The research, carried out by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and York University, and independently evaluated by Sheffield Hallam University, gets a three padlock rating for security (“moderate confidence”) and was conducted with 76 schools. The bit that really caught my eye was this, though: “EEF will explore options for testing the approach using a model that could be made available to a large number of schools.” I look forward to this further research – in the meantime will publishers pick up the gauntlet and invest in helping the researchers to deliver this approach at scale?

The second piece is this research review by the Centre for Education Economics. It looks at a number of recent studies seeking to identify the impact of technology on teaching and learning. What’s really fascinating is the range of impacts that the studies find: some hugely positive, some neutral and some even negative. It made me realise how naive the expectations of many in educational have been of the likely impact of technology, and what an early stage we’re at in the study of educational technology per se. As the report says, “[although] it is clear that technology is no panacea in education, the papers discussed here indicate that it may play an important role if it is implemented well and for the right purposes”.

So which publishers out there are investing in the right technology, for the right purposes, rather than simply in technology as an alternative to print? This review should be a wake-up call.

And finally… the ‘Closing the Gap’ report from the Education Policy Institute is something you probably didn’t miss. This kind of report – very clearly indicating a huge and widening gap between disadvantaged children and their peers which education policy has consistently failed to narrow at anything more than a snail’s pace over the last few decades – is a very tough one for the publishing industry and anyone else who supports teachers in what they do. The problem is enormous and, as the two previous reports indicate, it’s not in any way easy to identify approaches or resources which will have the very best chance of helping to raise standards.

When programmes do have a measurable impact, it tends not to be from a ‘magic bullet’, but from a research-based, well-planned and well-executed long term campaign. Can it be done? Yes: the best example I can think of is the London Challenge and City Challenge. I’m sure there are more: get in touch and let me know.

Setting sail

It’s just short of two months since Sam and I slipped out of port, but what a long time in education these two months have been. When we were getting underway, the Election was still a few days away (and the Queen’s Speech, as it turned out, a couple of weeks). Because we want Oriel Square – from the outset and at its core – to be an education company, many of our earliest conversations were about policy and practice.

The Monday morning after the election I attended Steve Besley’s Policy Breakfast. The breakfast had been given, in advance of the poll, the name ‘Bills, Bumps and Brexit’. In the event, it came just as the country had hit another of those bumps. As for bills: like anyone with an interest in a spending sector, with a minority government forming, we were waiting to hear what the Queen wouldn’t say. And of course, she didn’t say plenty.

View from prow of sailing ship
A laboured metaphor

The most obvious and widely reported knock to the Government’s pre-election schools policy is grammar schools, with an education bill now off the agenda. It will be interesting to see over the next two years whether the loss of this policy centrepiece leaves room for public attention to turn to bread-and-butter policy and funding questions. The diversion of money from elsewhere in the education budget to schools spending seems to suggest the Government is responding to growing public concern. Perhaps this is unlikely to be calmed by the present modest shuffling of accounts.

Talking of money and modesty, the small cash boost to Core Maths announced as a first response to the Smith Report on post-16 maths may belie progress over the next several years; particularly if the report’s recommendation, maths provision in all pathways by 2022, is adopted (or something close).

So much for bills and bumps, and on to the third B. While good ship Brexit looks to navigate choppy waters even as parliament enters the summer recess, it’s hard to tell which area of policy will come under scrutiny next. But with discussion of possible interim arrangements for the UK and EU circling largely around immigration policy, the skills gap is back to the fore, and so education’s up on deck. T-levels might be feeling a little queasy just now, but whether or not those qualifications find their sea-legs, in schools STEM is most certainly assured a while longer in the sun.

Working with great people 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about three of the great people or organisations that I was hoping to work with now that I’ve left BigCorp Ltd (aka Pearson). Since then John (co-founder) and I have formally launched Oriel Square Limited, and we have started to approach the people we would most like to work with. We think that our contact book is packed with exactly the sort of people who make projects successful and enjoyable – and that we can put together the very best team to deliver pretty much any educational publishing project you could think of, print or digital.

Before we start putting those teams together, though, we are still on the business development trail. So here are three more organisations full of great people that I’ve found myself going to in the first couple of weeks as we get ourselves established.

Yellow Submarine

Starting the second half of the list back in Oxford seems appropriate, and where better to start than where I start pretty much every working day? Educational mission? Check. Incredible passion and impact? Check. Great coffee? Oh my word yes. Not a bad combination: Yellow Submarine is a charity working with people with learning disabilities and autism, helping them make the transition from education to an independent working life. Based in Oxford and Witney, they run activity programmes for young people and adults. My daily contact with them, however, is all about coffee: their coffee shop in Park End Street, partly staffed by young people with disabilities, does the best espresso in Oxford (and there are some really, really good ones). And the people are just fantastic to work with.

Explore Learning

About ten years ago while at Pearson I came across this tutorial organisation led by Bill Mills, and staffed by some of the most impressive people you can hope to meet. The centres (based near supermarkets and high street shopping areas) provide a highly-effective mixture of online and offline learning experiences, complementing school-day education particularly for those children whose parents may not be able themselves to provide or pay for specialist tuition. Definitely in my list of companies I wish I’d known about when thinking about a career in education, but not having the courage to teach (just yet; maybe one day).

The Key

My final choice is another organisation I rely on daily. The Key provides support, guidance and information for school leaders and school governors, and is a great example of how to do things right. The team is made up of highly intelligent and motivated people (yup, there’s a bit of a theme developing here). The end result is so much better than using A.N. Other search engine that it has become something I count on for high stakes, up to date information about safeguarding, people issues, anything a chair of governors might be expected to make a decision on at short notice.

As I said at the top of the page, our next step will be to start putting together those brilliant teams so we can start delivering on some of the really exciting projects that we have in the pipeline already. We will be going through the contact book, will be out and about in Oxford and London, and will continue to hit social media so we hope we’ll catch up with everyone – but we’re bound to forget some or have mislaid contact details. So if you think we’re great too – or at least if you’re willing to get back in touch to find out more over a coffee – get in touch with Sam or John by email, LinkedIn or Twitter, or via Sam or John on Facebook. Or pop in to the Oxford Launchpad, Said Business School, and join us for a chat in the Tardis! (We’ll explain when you get here…)

Setting up in Oxford

We’ve already had a busy and exhilarating few weeks getting Oriel Square off the ground. There’s been plenty to find out about the practicalities of setting up the company we want to be; but there’s never really been any question as to where we’d get started. Both Sam and I have made our homes in Oxford, and it’s also where we’ve done the majority of our work in publishing. Oxford puts us a stone’s throw from London (and just a slightly more vigorous lob from Cambridge, Maidenhead, Birmingham…)

What’s been a very pleasant surprise is the help available in this city for start-ups like ours. We’ve been made to feel very welcome, invited to formal and less formal seminars and workshops on the theory and practice of setting up, and have caught a glimpse of a great diversity of fresh ideas, from social enterprises like Audazzle to high-tech University spin-outs like Zapgo; an advantage to being in a University town, perhaps, but also just a testament to the energy and friendliness here.

Startups looking for work spaces in Oxford now have a huge range of options, from informal spaces like the Wheelhouse to the more businesslike space we’ve chosen, the Oxford Launchpad at the Saïd Business School.

We’ve plenty of ambition for Oriel Square; it feels certain Oxford will lend us strong foundations.

Working with great people

Starting up a new company can be lonely – that’s what the career coach, the books and the internet said. Their advice? Start by setting up your own network. And as someone who gets much of their energy from being surrounded by and by interacting with people, that made a huge amount of sense.

Some context first: despite having had no plan to enter the corporate world when I finished my studies at Oxford in 1998, I’ve ended up working for a grand total of three corporations over 19 years. However much I might like to think of myself as a creative individual or a free spirit, I’ve been an employee my whole working life. Perhaps in reaction against this, I’ve been drawn to working with those individuals and organisations I’ve felt most epitomise what I want to achieve in life. And now I’m in control of my own destiny, how better to start than by getting straight back in touch with those I’ve most enjoyed working with, and whose businesses seem to have had the biggest impact on teaching and learning?

But how do you choose who to contact first? This is a short list of who I’ve found myself contacting in week 1 of being involved in an educational publishing start-up. It’s not a best-of, or a wish-list, it’s what I’ve ended up doing for real: a group of people and organisations I hugely admire and like, and who I thought might write back or want to meet up for a coffee. (And the best thing is that they all have replied – between me starting this blog and finishing it.)

LKMCo / The Hackney Pirates

I’ve worked with Loic, Will and the team at LKMCo several times over the last few years. They are intelligent, driven and motivated by a desire to help the education system to improve. I love the fact that they describe themselves as a ‘think and action-tank’ and I hope we’ll be able to work with them on both aspects in future. Plus their office is above a bookshop that’s also a pirate ship.

Ruth Merttens / The Hamilton Trust

My first job in publishing was in the late 1990s, working at Prebendal House in Aylesbury for Ginn & Company. Even then the Georgian mansion with landscaped gardens was a throwback to publishing times past. I had the great privilege of working on Abacus, a revolutionary primary maths scheme. My main responsibilities were copy-fitting and reference checking, but I did get to work with the legendary Ruth Merttens: one of the most intelligent, compassionate and energetic people I have ever met. To work with Ruth is to be inspired to work even better; and the work of the Hamilton Trust charity that she leads alongside all the other educational work that she does is particularly important to me as it directly supports education in East Oxford, where the school of which I’m chair of governors, St Francis, is located.

Rachel de Souza / Inspiration Trust

Rachel (Dame Rachel) is a much more recent contact but is someone who has encouraged and inspired me to raise my game. Taking advantage of changes in the education policy landscape to improve outcomes in one of the most deprived areas of the country (East Anglia), Rachel’s willingness to buck trends, go with the evidence and against received wisdom in pursuit of educational impact really challenged me to acknowledge the political origin of many things that I believed about education. Plus she has been supportive to me personally, a real pleasure to work with, and has put me in touch with many other wonderful people in education.

Three more fantastic organisations to follow shortly! I’d love to hear your suggestions of who else we could get in touch with, too.