By Edward Upton
An expanded version of a talk given to the Bettr conference in January 2011
Over the last 50 years Western economies have seen a boom in productivity per worker, due in part to the introduction of communication technology and computers, improvements in the division of labour and better education. Yet, unfortunately, the education sector itself has seen little productivity improvement during this time: it still takes roughly the same number of teachers per pupil to deliver the same (or arguably lower) standard of education as 50 years ago.
While salaries across the private sector have risen as workers share in the dividend of modern efficiencies, teacher salaries have not. Indeed they cannot keep pace when the overall budget per pupil stays constant in real terms. Given the anticipated constrained public funding over the next decade, the only way to attract fresh talent into teaching —and adequately reward the existing talent— will be to help teachers work more efficiently.
It would, of course, be a mistake to push this analogy too far and imply that education should become some mass produced, industrial-scale product. Rather, just as law firms have found better ways to use paralegals and automated process to maximize the face-time they give their clients, we need to use technology to maximize the face-time of the gifted teacher. It is always going to be the one-to-one connection between pupil and teacher that really makes the difference in education.
Many central government initiatives in the UK have tried to boost efficiency in education. But in the wider world, advances in productivity are made not by central government edict, but by individual entrepreneurs. In his latest popular history book (Civilisation), Niall Fergusson lists six trends that explain the great progress made by Western Civilisation over 500 years. Among these, Competition and the Consumer Society are the most relevant in this context, and are the two most obviously lacking the state education sector.
Competition and consumption are the lifeblood that feeds entrepreneurialism and new ways of operating. Not just competition between different schools in a given area, but especially in the suppliers of staff, facilities support and teaching resources that these schools use. It is only by letting the successful techniques thrive and allowing the less effective to whither that we can create lasting improvements in teaching effectiveness.
At Teachable, we try to live out this philosophy on two levels as a for-profit social enterprise. We want a healthy, teacher-as-consumer market for teacher support and resources, rather than bureaucratically-commissioned, centrally-funded services (such as Teachers TV or European Schoolnet) – which tend to have a poor uptake within the teaching system. Plus, within this marketplace, we want to reward individually excellent teachers by providing them some royalty income from their ideas and techniques. Our service allows teachers and schools to pick from a range of classroom-proven lesson materials to download, costing from around £1 per file. The customers can provide feedback on the depth, originality and presentation of the content, and in a totally meritocratic system the best content producers earn the highest royalties.
We believe that, if we succeed, we should be generating a profit from providing this service, but crucially this success would only be if: 1. Teachers from across the country and indeed the globe buy into the service; and 2. We are delivering excellent educational resources into hard-pressed schools at low cost. So Teachable profiting from education would be the result of many pupils profiting from better lessons and more of their teachers’ time.
Contrast this approach to a project such as Curriculum Online, which set out to create a marketplace for digital educational content and cost some £40m of UK public funds to set up (leaving aside the c. £1bn subsidy of content for the platform). It had negligible uptake by teachers and distorted rather than improved the market for content suppliers, yet plenty of companies profited from its creation. This is unwieldy state-led capitalism, and it certainly did nothing to boost productivity in education.
There are other good examples of companies that have bravely pioneered new services for education —such as Espresso in video content and Eteach in recruitment— but they are still viewed with suspicion in some schools simply because they seek to charge commercial rates for their services. Yet, the same people would have no problem using innovative consumer products from vastly profitable companies such as Apple or Google.
So my call is for a more open market place for educational services, and perhaps even private schools, which allow entrepreneurs to experiment and profit from new operating models. Educationalists of all stripes need to be sanguine about the benefits of encouraging businessmen into the education ‘industry’; that this is the only way to unleash the promised benefits of technology in classrooms.
And who profits from this excellent education? The students of course.
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