Monthly Spotlight: Interview with James Teasdale, Head of Venture Development, Young Foundation

How, if at all, do you think innovation can tackle educational inequality?

Schools are under pressure to meet set objectives and uphold certain standards, so the things they engage with will be focused on their specific goals. Whether or not innovation can have an impact on educational inequality depends on  the particular challenge the innovation is trying to solve and the circumstances and priorities of a specific school, such as reducing the attainment gap at GCSE[1] between FSM and non-FSM pupils[2] or maintaining good Progress 8 scores.[3]

There are gaps and disparities in the education system that have persisted for some time, such as the FSM attainment gap and how outcomes for SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) pupils can be improved. While adequate funding is of course key to addressing these challenges, innovation has an important role to play: if you don’t innovate or try anything different, why would these problems necessarily go away? Engaging with innovative ideas and external organisations increases the chance of finding something that might be effective. This is how I think innovation might fundamentally help to address educational inequality.

There are some people who are trying to connect the dots, but it’s important to note that there is not necessarily something that will work in every context. While schools do face common challenges, other challenges remain specific to differences in geography, community, catchment area and other varying circumstances.

What do you think are the key benefits of commissioning innovation to schools and pupils?

As I mentioned before, introducing fresh ideas and new ways of doing things to schools is an important benefit. Being exposed to a wider range of approaches than they’re currently using or might have thought of will hopefully lead to a breakthrough in better trends like decreasing attainment gaps as well as improved student experience.

Another benefit I’ve been struck by is how teachers have been inspired or encouraged by meeting the entrepreneurial community. They say things like, “it’s great that people are thinking about that and committing their time to it, I had no idea that existed.” It could be a good idea to find a more systematic method of introducing teachers to innovation, to encourage them to engage more.

How important do you think the idea of ‘innovation’ is to schools/local authorities/education policy-makers?

Most school leaders probably get the concept of innovation but may think about it as something internal, in terms of doing things differently or finding new ways of working within their school. I’m not sure if they have all seen the full potential that lies in buying in or commissioning innovative products and services from external providers.

Some schools are already commissioning innovative services but there is a gap between schools that can and can’t. Anecdotally speaking, the schools already doing this tend to be schools that are generally doing well in terms of better performance, having more capacity, and being more outward-looking.

There seems to be a divide between London and the rest of country, as well as between urban and rural areas. Cities tend to be hubs for entrepreneurs and innovation. Schools in cities and London especially have more exposure to that field. There’s a different mind-set that exists in schools which have managed to do innovation well. We need to find more ways to spread school engagement with innovation beyond the usual suspects and help schools to understand the benefits that commissioning innovative products and services can bring for their staff and pupils.

Author: James Teasdale leads on the Young Academy programme, which supports early-stage enterprises and innovative ventures working to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged young people in England.

[1] GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education)) is an academic qualification awarded in England and Wales to students aged 15-16. Performance at GCSE is also a metric commonly used to assess a school’s attainment.

[2] FSM pupils are those who receive Free School Meals, indicating they come from low-income or disadvantaged families. Schools receive additional Pupil Premium funding to support these pupils.

[3] Progress 8 scores are a performance metric used in the UK education system to measure student attainment in terms of progress during secondary school.