UK Schools the Morning After: A New Day Dawns and Not All Is Bad, Part II

Last month I wrote about the impact of the radical May 2010 changes in British education policy enacted by the new Conservative-Liberal coalition and how they’ve affected the market for instructional and other ICT (Information & Communications Technology) materials. After spending four days at the BETT conference in London in early January, I came away feeling that school buyers and vendors both are cautiously optimistic about the future despite the new austerity. Being at BETT, where the number of attendees, over 30,300, set a new show record, and some 650 exhibitors participated, slightly down from last year but more international, was energizing. I heard the same from many of the exhibitors. To understand how publishers are coping with the new UK market environment, I spoke in-depth with senior executives of two of them, Julie Kilcoyne, Co-Founder and Joint-CEO of Boardworks and Chris Bradford, COO of BrainPOP UK, which are also involved in the U.S. market. Read on to see how their strategies relate to yours in our own recessionary and evolving market.

ICT Market Reawakening

In the face of these unprecedented headwinds, BETT 2012’s gratifying turnout of approximately 30,370 was 3.84% over last year and the show’s biggest ever. As mentioned previously, its 650 exhibitors numbered slightly less than last year but included many more non-UK companies participating to reach international visitors as much as UK purchasers. What’s more, according to Ray Barker, Director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), it’s already clear that next year’s BETT will be a lot bigger, at least space wise. The current tally of 2013 sold space already exceeds that for 2012. One important factor is BETT’s impending move to the more spacious ExCeL-London Exhibition Center, which, in addition to its greater exhibition capacity, offers meeting space for multiple simultaneous conferences. (Olympia’s sparse conference space has made it almost impossible for BETT to host a substantial teacher conference to boost its professional development draw.)

When I asked Ray Barker why the turnout was high despite the funding cuts he said, “Schools are a year and a half into the new regimen and are getting more comfortable with their situation. They’re finally becoming more confident that they won’t be getting less money, and the previous expectation by some of a government bailout for Local Authorities (LAs) and schools has been abandoned. They’ve money—their totals from the Education Ministry haven’t been cut, and the psychological impact of the recession’s general austerity is becoming less daunting. They’re again ready to spend, and technology is more of a staple these days.” Roger Broadie, Director, Broadie Associates Ltd., added, “Schools have been in the doldrums regarding technology, having just drifted since the Local Authority (LA) drive to push technology ceased, and they’re just beginning to realize they need to keep a focus on ICT. This is being reinforced by a continuing push on data and standards and measuring progress and accountability, which have been a plus for the assessment and accountability software communities.”

How Instructional Publishers Are Coping


Here’s what Julie Kilcoyne of Boardworks shared with me about how her firm is responding to the changed UK market:

“For those who don’t know our firm, Boardworks publishes educational software designed for whole-class teaching on interactive whiteboards and projectors, with a growing range of products covering science, math, English, and history for elementary, middle, and high school teaching, including AP courses. Our namesake product line, Boardworks, is a comprehensive library of editable PowerPoint slides designed to support the UK curriculum. More recently, our online MyWorks package is an assessment solution that sets and marks homework assignments, perfect for formative assessment.

“Regarding the UK market since the coalition’s changes, some outside the UK don’t realize that many of the changes apply only to England. Since devolution, education policy in the four constituent countries of the UK has diverged. In fact, in Wales there’re no specialist schools or league tables (a British scoring rubric published to show parents and staff how well any school is performing against others), but there’s a new Welsh Building Schools for the Future (BSF) program coming in 2014.

“Companies outside the UK need to know that while there’s a national UK curriculum, for the General Certificate for Secondary Education (GCSE) exam schools may select from multiple testing authorities (“exam boards”) for their performance assessment and then teach to the selected authority’s curriculum requirements. Good league tables scores are valuable for attracting students, and for post-16 studies, higher scores mean more lucrative funding by the government. Because of the continued focus on accountability, the assessment market is really strong. We launched MyWorks, our new assessment product in 2010, and have seen a lot of growth in its sales. We’re now in 13% of secondary schools with it. We’re still selling Boardworks curricular content with assessment but are now leading more with assessment.

“The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is another interesting change, reflecting the new coalition’s concern, when it took office, about the state of vocational education. According to the UK Department of Education’s website , the EBacc was introduced as a performance measure in the 2010 performance tables. It’s not a qualification in itself but recognizes student achievement across a core of academic subjects—English, mathematics, history, geography, the sciences, and a language. Since 2004 the number of non-academic qualifications taken up to aged 16 rose from about 15,000 to about 575,000, with a higher take-up of vocational qualifications by young people from deprived backgrounds. Some groups are concerned that these qualifications don’t carry real weight for entry to higher education or for getting a job. While the EBacc is still optional, schools are measured on them. And its growing popularity means there’ll be more uptake of languages, history, and geography. For example, a poll in the summer of 2011 of nearly 700 secondary schools in England found an increase of 26% in numbers studying history, a similar increase for geography, and a 22% rise for languages. As in the U.S., there have been complaints from teachers about their restricted ability to focus on non-core subjects, such as religious studies (an accepted part of UK-funded education). Teachers are also concerned that because of budget pressures, schools will not replace non-core teachers who leave.

“Of course, another big change is the growing population of academies and Free Schools, the interesting private/public partnerships designed to connect schools more closely to their communities. Fortunately for us at Boardworks, we’ve never sold at the LA level, always concentrating on building relationships with individual schools. As individual schools change to academies, we’ve carefully renewed the customer relationships, and in a great many cases, we’re still dealing with the same curriculum, department, or school heads, though we’ve seen a slight shift to more departmental sales. Despite their organizational change, most academies are still using something close to the national curriculum, which their teachers are used to teaching, and as mentioned earlier, their older students still need to take the GCSE exam. That makes our products as relevant as ever.

“Last year was a real shock for school purchasing. Pure curricular software sales took a serious hit. Happily, this year feels more buoyant. Boardworks had a much better BETT this year than last. Schools are again recognizing they need to continue investing. While we’ve a comprehensive e-marketing strategy, we’ve always valued our inside and field sales teams. They’re essential for maintaining and developing relationships with teachers and for being in schools to see what schools are doing and how they’re using our products. It’s always been fundamental to our success that we understand what’s actually happening in the classroom. Our view going forward is cautious optimism—but everybody’s working much harder to get schools’ purchases.”


Chris Bradford told me, “Many of your readers will be familiar with BrainPOP US. At BrainPOP UK, we offer a localized cross curricular, cross phase, multimedia learning website that delivers instructional content using animation, graphics, audio, text, interactive quizzes, and supplementary extension activities for a wide range of the required curriculum. To understand the past two years of the UK market, you need to know about the past ten years. To bolster UK education, the government initiated special literacy and numeracy programs, and then ICT, each with ‘ring-fenced’ government funds. For ICT, the funding mechanism involved ‘eLearning credits (eLCs),’ earmarked for school use to acquire multimedia materials. Schools had to spend it or lose it and, as a consequence, purchased mountains of CD-ROMs, networks, and other infrastructure which, in retrospect, didn’t always match expectations. The schools would try out packages suggested by their LAs. Major educational suppliers did well as a result of the volume of these LA-funded purchases. Under the new Conservative-Liberal coalition, budget restraints have severely limited central purchasing. City Learning Centers (CLCs) that provided training to teachers to support their schools’ use of ICT also saw funding eliminated and their numbers have been drastically reduced (e.g., London, previously home to 24 CLCs, now has only four).

“LAs now are rarely buying centrally for their schools nor do they have funds to renew contracts centrally. As agreements expire, schools are being told to pick them up individually or give them up. The new environment requires direct-to-schools selling. Vendors more than ever need to show a product’s or service’s value to individual schools as opposed to specialist advisors. Schools are also using more consumer products to enhance learning and engage learners—such as Voicethread, Audioboo, Animoto, Wordpress, and Scratch for programming and Google Docs that are free or very low cost. It’s not difficult these days to find, for example, decent free animations of the heart on the ‘Net so paid product has to have a clear value proposition.

“When we first entered the UK market, we were an unknown entity with weird cartoons and U.S. roots. Teachers were comparing our products with hugely successful incumbent content companies, many of which were in high proportions of UK schools with curricular packages. It’s taken time for us to become fully localized and develop a reputation and network, but we’re now there. UK schools have had ten years of service from a handful of major companies, but now schools are open to fresh ideas, products, and ways of doing things that bring clear differentiated value. While our content is ‘mapped to the UK curricula,’ it’s not explicitly dependent on it; our focus is on trying to answer kids’ questions, whether or not in the curriculum. That’s let us position ourselves somewhat above the fray of curricular issues and at considerably lower cost. Curricular products in the UK are still expensive, so our subscription fee looks very competitive by comparison. This year teachers came to the BrainPOP UK BETT stand saying they were ready to talk, obviously aware of and excited by the brand offering. They’re more receptive than ever to new ways of doing things."

“Market trends are swinging in our favor. Apple’s eBooks, Intel Classmates, and Google’s Chromebooks are all getting more recognition as valid and affordable student learning platforms. Austerity is two things—actual budget cuts and psychological mindset. Schools ‘have money again’—after living with austerity for almost two years, they’re getting over their spending paralysis and looking for useful stuff to complement or replace what they already have. Two other plusses are the new emphasis on computer science over ICT skills and ‘pupil premium’ funding to support the learning of disadvantaged students. One kid’s worth will buy a BrainPOP subscription for the school for the year. Additionally, the government has strong views on devolving authority to academies and other independent schools, and schools are freer to buy what they want. According to some estimates, 40% of UK Secondary schools are, or are in the process of, becoming academies, something once thought highly improbable. In fact, the government is trying to force low-performing schools to become academies. All of which means sales and marketing methods must change. We think the biggest opportunity is in the new cluster purchasing groups, usually 5 to 25 schools, where groups of schools work together to leverage their purchasing power.

“UK firms need to be smarter about how they sell, which means developing relationships with individual schools, educators, and administrators. The high cost of field sales and telesales makes them unwieldy models for all but the largest publishers. Because teachers are increasingly turning to the web and using social media to learn what’s good or bad, and are getting more empowered by that freedom, at BrainPOP UK we’ve baked ‘social’ into our DNA. We can facilitate relationships with teachers and parents who have increasing influence on purchasing and don’t need permission of higher-ups to explore products. I like to call it the ‘Amazon’ or ‘flat earth’ effect of the Internet on school purchasing. The same people hold the budget, but their staff are not dependent on a few ‘knowledge holders’ and can tap into online ‘edu networks’ of thousands for support, advice, and reviews. We’re also using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, and more to build our brand with an all-consuming focus on customer experience, including building a remarkable collective of teacher advocates called VIBs (Very Important BrainPOPers). Investing in creating and supporting a unique culture and value set that teachers connect to is the way forward. Grass roots influence is turning the UK schools market on its head. The companies that will succeed will have the best digital footprints. Companies need to build digital equity with good product, service, and usability. Brands that connect with communities of teachers are the future.”

It Doesn’t Sound All That Unfamiliar, Eh?

What vendors in the UK are experiencing and how they’re changing the way they market to schools mirrors much of what we’ve been seeing over the past few years in the U.S. Building relationships with school buyers is still key, with a stronger dose of social media and e-marketing, but field and inside sales are hardly out of the picture. The UK market has its own idiosyncrasies but, as illustrated by Boardworks and BrainPOP, the Internet is making operating in both the U.S. and the UK increasingly appealing, though hardly a casual or low-risk undertaking.

You’ll be reading more in this column about what’s happening internationally over the coming months because the globalization of education is becoming an increasingly important market driver. For those of you who want a deeper dive than these columns offer, save the dates of June 2-3, 2012, for the new CIC International Markets Forum, "Global K-12 Educational Publishing: The Giant Awakening,” which I’ll be chairing, preceding the AEP/AAP Content in Context Conference in Washington, D.C. As always, I’m happy to hear from you at nelson@hellerresults.com.


Dr. Nelson Heller is president of The HellerResults Group, a global strategic consultancy serving business and non-profits seeking growth opportunities in the education market. He is the founder of The Heller Reports newsletters and EdNET: The Educational Networking Conference, both started in 1989.  The EdNET News Alert, successor to The Heller Reports publications and now published by MDR, reaches over 31,000 education executives worldwide every week, and features a regular column from The HellerResults Group each month.  You can learn more about Nelson and his industry leadership at The HellerResults GroupIf you need strategic insight; business partners; international connections; stronger boards; keynoters; or entrepreneurial savvy, and want the insight of 30 years at the business and technology crossroads of the education market, you can reach Nelson at 858-720-1914, by email at nelson@hellerresults.com, and on twitter @NelsonHeller.