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Article in The Times

Loved this article in The Times - December 2016

Joe Mathewson has always had a knack for problem-solving. At 14, he and fellow pupil Simon Hay, decided to fix their school’s clunky intranet, which was doubling the workload of staff and students. They built a replacement, a decision that has paid off almost two decades later.

“It was born out of frustration,” said Mathewson, now 32. “It was 1999, and while the internet had started to take off, it was impossible to access homework or handouts from home.”They learnt to code and built a system so good it was adopted by their school, St Paul’s in west London. “It wasn’t intended as a business venture. Understandably, people were wary about using a system built by two teenagers,” said Mathewson.

Fast-forward 17 years and Mathewson and Hay, 30, are at the helm of Firefly, a digital learning platform used by 480 schools worldwide to set homework, track progress and share resources. After a one-off fee of £2,000, schools can expect to pay from £7 a year per pupil to use it.

Firefly, used by about 400,000 pupils in 32 countries, boasts a client list that includes Eton College and the British International School in Cairo. Private schools make up 59% of their roster, 26% are state-run and 15% are international. It aims to reach 750m students across the globe.

Last month Firefly secured £4.5m funding from BGF Ventures and Beringea — one of the largest investments to be raised by an early-stage edtech firm.Mathewson heads a team of 50 at offices in south London and Sydney. “Now the challenges we face are hiring the right people who can help us market and develop Firefly globally,” he said.

The success of companies such as Firefly is fuelling the growth of education technology, or “edtech” — systems designed to support learning. It is one of the fastest-growing areas of the UK’s digital economy, accounting for 4% of all digital businesses.

There are close to 1,000 edtech start-ups and scale-up businesses in Britain today, according to Edtech UK, a government-backed body set up last year to help gain a greater share of a global market that is estimated to grow to £129bn by 2020.

Ian Fordham, the body’s chief executive, believes Britain is now beyond the “hype cycle” of edtech and the sector’s potential to improve education standards and social mobility is recognised. “As one of the few countries with a compulsory computing curriculum, we have the potential for Britain to be a world leader in edtech and innovation,” said Fordham.

Half of the 20 fastest-growing edtech companies in Europe are in the UK, and ministers have finally woken up to the sector’s potential. The first head of edtech policy and data strategy at the Department for Education, Bridie Tooher, was appointed in August.

British schools, which spend £900m a year on education technology, have more freedom than in countries such as America where suppliers must be approved by district authorities.

“Historically, it has been notoriously difficult to sell into schools as they don’t have the budget or time to look at new technologies,” said Simon Calver, partner at BGF Ventures. “[Let’s hope that] broader support from the government will ensure that schools have more flexibility over the types of products and services they invest in.”

Nicola Chilman, co-founder of DoodleMaths, the UK’s bestselling mathematics app, believes more needs to be done to help schools embrace tech at a grassroots level. Chilman, 39, and Tom Minor, 44, launched their app, which covers national curriculum maths for 4 to 14-year-olds, in 2013 after growing concerned about poor numeracy skills. They now work with 300 UK schools.

“The app technology can understand the strengths and weaknesses of every child, which is difficult to do as a teacher when you’ve got 30 children,” said Chilman, who leads a team of 10 from the Bath HQ.

“We’re both qualified teachers, so we understand the challenges that schools face; so many people in edtech don’t. They have a vision of how education should be delivered but don’t realise that some schools have poor wi-fi or no IT co-ordinator,” said Chilman.

Paul Miller, 37, and Jon Haines, 46, began work on their educational video platform VEO in 2013. It enables users to record, tag and review learning practices.

To get backing, they had to prove the technology had other uses. “We knew using video could revolutionise everything from teaching observations to presentations,” said Miller. “The time-saving technology can be used beyond the school set-up, so we convinced investors we were on to something very early on.”

VEO in Newcastle, which has four staff, secured £130,000 of investment from Northstar Ventures last year to help them scale up to reach 100 schools across Europe, America and Singapore. The app is free to download but access to VEO’s sharing functions is charged monthly, with prices averaging about £1 per user. Twelve universities have signed up, as well as businesses keen to streamline in-house learning.

“Edtech in this country is burgeoning, and people are beginning to understand there are different ways to do it,” said Miller. “But we need to keep this momentum by investing.”

by Lorraine Adams