Innovation Diary: Perfect storm of factors is set to make education technology the UK’s next growth sector

Tom Welsh
Follow Tom
FOR THOSE seeking a model of the classroom of the future, Estonia is often high up the list. Speaking at Davos last week, Barclays’s Antony Jenkins contrasted the Baltic state’s “technologically-oriented” economy, where every child is taught coding at school, with the UK’s structural youth unemployment. Estonia’s tech transformation is indeed impressive. It has some of the world’s fastest broadband speeds, a high density of startups, and internet access is now a human right.

Yet despite criticisms of UK efforts, education technology (edtech) has a 30 year heritage here. The BETT show, a trade event that showcases the use of IT in education, has been running in London since 1985. It returned last week with an impressive (and international) array of edtech firms: eBeam turns standard whiteboards interactive; Beamz builds music systems designed to teach things like cause and effect; 3P Learning develops the Mathlectics numeracy resource, used in 17,000 schools globally.

London also has a new edtech accelerator. Emerge Education, co-founded by Jan Matern and working in partnership with Oxford’s Said Business School, is currently working with its first cohort. Participants include Learned By Me, which connects language teachers from emerging markets with tutees via Skype. Lexicum is a personalised vocabulary trainer that allows users to build up a list of words they look up – and then auto-generates flash cards for users to test themselves.

They’re deceptively simple ideas, but Matern says that one of the reasons he founded his accelerator was to tackle edtech startups’ very specific challenges. First, they have to deal with a slow procurement cycle, with schools reluctant to buy into new products early. To solve this, Matern puts startups in front of teachers who are pre-committed to beta testing. It’s also often hard for edtech firms to acquire users in a commercially-viable way. One route around this is for startups to speak with incumbent providers and to integrate their products within existing software. Finally, the sector is known as difficult, making it harder to prove viability to investors.

But the signs are that UK edtech is thriving. First, the cost of technology is falling rapidly and, combined with consumer and government pressure on the education sector to deliver better results at lower cost, innovative tech is becoming more attractive to schools. Education reform is also being felt. Since, says Matern, “the authority to procure new tools” is returning to individual schools, the more forward-thinking are more likely to become early adopters.

Combined with critiques like Jenkins’s, which highlight a failure to provide students with the skills they will need in a very different future economy, and a desire to break away from teaching’s nineteenth century traditions to provide more dynamic and personalised content, edtech looks set to enjoy a positive perfect storm in the next few years.

It could prove very attractive to UK entrepreneurs. Speaking to me last year, Silicon Valley Comes to the UK founder Sherry Coutu highlighted edtech as one of three sectors where UK startups could thrive relative to US competitors. Matern also points to a revival in interest from venture capital. Importantly, however, edtech could provide successful startups with a combination of a very obvious positive social outcome, viable and growing businesses, and a chance to crack into emerging markets – where low cost, transformative education tools are needed just as much as here.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M. @TWWelsh