25 January 2020: Even before the global pandemic, the UK was considered as Europe’s EdTech hub. As the new demands of home learning have accelerated the industry’s product offerings and processes, the full breadth and scope of the UK’s Edtech portfolio have made us pause to celebrate their quality and success. It has also made us think what further support is needed to make sure that those that need the services of EdTech most (parents/carers/teachers) are able to find and access them.
In a recent report published by London & Partners, London-based EdTech companies raised a total of $124 million in VC during 2019, positioning it as the largest EdTech ecosystem in Europe. At Downing Ventures, we are proud to work with some of the very best EdTech companies in the world that have had to modify and hasten their business offering to provide much-needed solutions to the challenges that Covid-19 has created for education.
Closing the attainment gap
One thing that each of our EdTech portfolio can agree on is that Covid-19 and lockdown has caused the attainment gap to widen and resulted in a massive need to help students catch up. Government funding has increased to reflect this.
Third Space Learning (TSL) has recruited a global tutor community to provide high quality, affordable online tuition to children in schools across the UK, helping to close the attainment gap.
Founder and CEO, Tom Hooper comments:
“The government launched a £1 billion catch up fund this year, within which TSL was chosen as one of 33 school tutoring businesses to participate in the National Tutoring Programme. We have been able to put in place tuition for tens of thousands of disadvantaged pupils very quickly given our global tutor model. In addition, we have launched a product in the US in partnership with a large US EdTech company. We integrated our tutor operations with their student community, allowing us to launch quickly and with low risk. This global partnership reflects the strengths of our platform model.”
A company supporting three of the tuition providers from the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) is EdPlace, who offer industry-leading and curriculum-aligned English, maths and science home learning for years 1 – 9 with all resources written by experienced teachers.
As the business has always focused on home learning, they had a great product fit for lockdown. However, prior to Covid-19, they were a premium only product. They recognised the need to quickly open up the platform for free whilst not undermining their business model and so, during the first lockdown, Edplace made their resources on the website accessible without an account.
Breaking down barriers to entry were key. As pupils prepared to go back to school in September 2020, they launched free ‘catch-up’ assessments to identify learning gaps following school closures. It was also recently named as number 3 on a list of 100 things that the Mumsnet community swore by in 2020.
Empiribox, a science education specialist provider, created an already twice-award-winning product service, Empiribox @ Home, helping to create those ‘wow’ moments for primary school pupils at home, in a safe and engaging way. It provides access to a complete library of curriculum-aligned and engaging interactive science lessons that include interactive videos, supporting resources and adaptable hands-on activities, even if schools aren’t open.
For teachers, this means they can assign any lesson to pupils to complete, using readily available materials found around the home. For parents and carers, it means they have access to their very own dedicated science teacher at home.
Empiribox’s CEO, Richard McGrath comments:
“If Covid has shown us anything, it is just how important science is to the world’s wellbeing. Sadly, the UK has a massive skills shortage in terms of science graduates and this issue needs to be addressed well before pupils arrive in a secondary school setting. At Empiribox, we are committed to the advancement of practical science in primary schools and through our new Empiribox @ Home service, we can now support delivery of this goal using online digital video lessons that can be used in school and at home.”
The New Parent TA
Helping parents be as fully engaged in their children’s education while also playing the role of teaching assistant is a solution that Firefly had found before the pandemic. The Firefly platform is a school learning tool that gives teachers more time to teach, enables students to learn in ways that work best for them and involves parents with their child’s learning every step of the way. The platform keeps parents up to date with their child’s progress and enables teachers to provide parents with the resources they need to support learning outside the classroom, which all have been vital during lockdown.
The Firefly team had a head start in their preparation for the first UK lockdown, as schools that used their platform in Hong Kong needed it to be modified as they began remote learning during the protests in 2019. Firefly identified the best quick-to-adopt practice and the result was an onboarding process that took days rather than weeks.
“Building institutional muscle memory is crucial for the future of pedagogy. We need to give parents and teachers the tools to know what to do so they have them at hand for whenever they need them. Self-isolation and teaching bubbles will continue to exist for the foreseeable future so it is our mission to make sure all parents that engage with our community are using it to be set up for success,” says Firefly’s CEO and founder, Simon Hay.
Importance of agility
Being agile in these unpredictable times is key to enabling the most successful and efficient service. Kinderly’s award-winning early years software provides digital reporting, child-development tracking tools, training and resources to enable early years childcare professionals to be at their best so they can give the children in their care the best start in life, regardless of their background or economic circumstances.
With the early years community heavily impacted, Kinderly wanted to find a way to support early years professionals (EYPs), help them stay in touch with the children they normally care for and support the parents with the huge and daunting task of home learning. Thanks to their rapid agility, Kinderly has transformed and grown their business by almost 300% during the pandemic and launched in new markets.
Kinderly’s digital platforms created a unique opportunity to access their free support package and resources that include a Covid-19 resource bank, much-loved and celebrated weekly expert webinars that reaches up to 10,000 EYP’s, continuing professional development with Kinderly Learn, a Facebook community group, weekly activity bulletins (with a list of age-appropriate activities) and yoga for children.
While Kinderly haven’t received support from the UK government, its founder and CEO, Geraint Barton suggests that the ever-growing EdTech community could be a source of new employment opportunities for those who have been made or face unemployment during the pandemic:
“We would love government support to employ more staff, whether that is for internships or people looking to retrain or make a move from other sectors. We have met so many people who have lost their job, because of Covid, who need new opportunities in different industries that are calling out for employment.”
Opportunities for the industry to continue thriving
When schools received government relief funding in 2020, they were told by the Department for Education that it had to go towards either Microsoft or Google software. A more efficient procurement process that celebrates indigenous, independent innovation is encouraged by the UK’s EdTech community.
Firefly’s Simon Hay comments:
“We would like to see more open communication channels between the government and our sector that is made up of small, homegrown EdTech companies who are driving innovation in this country while also giving real time solutions. Pushing for schools to use international exports is actively harmful to British business and the EdTech sector should continue to be a source of national pride and appropriately supported.”
Will Paterson, CEO at EdPlace adds:
“Lockdown has highlighted the disconnect between the EdTech industry and the DfE, with for example, initially recommending loosely screened resources, followed by a drive to create their own, despite strong, proven alternatives already existing in the market. In order to deliver educational support where it’s needed most, the DfE should invest in understanding what the industry has to offer, support its development through targeted funding and build a better procurement process. This will ensure all students get the targeted support they need and gives the EdTech industry the backing it needs to compete and win on the global stage.”
Looking to the future
With the outlook for education looking uncertain, preparing for the year ahead and beyond as best as possible is crucial.
“The National Tutor Programme is planned for at least four years. With the massive social impact from the two lockdowns, a huge impact on poorer children’s learning, it will take years to catch up, if we even can. We need significant and consistent government support for innovation to drive our businesses to be able to support as many people as we can,” concludes Tom Hooper of TSL.
While the growth and innovation of the UK EdTech sector has been supported by government initiatives that encourage investments in the industry, a call to consult the industry experts is hugely encouraged by our EdTech portfolio. As the education sector continues to navigate the best processes during the ongoing pandemic, the EdTech community offers lifeline solutions in addition to employment opportunities.
Across the pond in the USA, the growth of education SPACs* make a sharp increase in global mergers and acquisitions in the EdTech space likely, as well as opening up opportunities for UK businesses.
By 2025, the EdTech market is set to reach a total value of $341 billion and with the ongoing innovation borne out of the UK, the future looks bright for the UK to still carry the torch as global leaders in this market.
*What is a SPAC? Read more info here.