Learning with Parents case study: Empowering families to enjoy learning together
To help our aspiring entrepreneurs and future SETsquared Bristol members, we showcase a number of case studies demonstrating the breadth of tech at SETsquared Bristol and what it takes to achieve success.
We had a chat with Learning with Parents CEO, Tom Harbour…
What does Learning with Parents do?
Learning with Parents exists so that one day every child will be supported at home to fulfil their academic potential. We run programmes, including Maths with Parents and English with Parents, which motivate and empower over 20,000 parents across the UK to have enjoyable learning experiences with their children. We have a policy strand, the Parental Engagement Forum, where we work with 40 other education charities, non-profits and researchers to advocate parental engagement as a lever to narrow the educational attainment gap. On average, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are 9 months behind their peers when they finish primary school. Lots of emphasis is put on schools to try and narrow this gap, but we know that only 14% of the gap is due to schools, and half of the gap is due to parental engagement.
Tell me a bit about your background and what led you to start the business?
I was teaching in a school that served a disadvantaged community in Leicester and got interested in why it was that the poorest children underachieved. I did a masters in education, looking at parental engagement in disadvantaged communities and what schools could do to best support it. I guess I never really intended to start a business or a charity, I just felt like parents needed support to engage in their children’s education and schools were struggling to provide it. So I started creating some videos and activities to send out to a handful of schools and it grew from there.
What are your reasons for becoming a registered charity?
Learning with Parents became a registered charity in the beginning of June this year. We decided that what we’re calling for is a fundamental change in the education system, where learning is seen as more than just what happens at school. This is much bigger than just being an ed-tech platform, which is what we originally were. We started off as a limited company as Maths with Parents in 2016, but because our charitable aims are so much broader, we moved to be a charity because it feels like it better represents who we really are. We exist to narrow the disadvantage gap which is a more achievable vision through partnerships with other charitable organisations.
And how did you enter SETsquared?
We were initially incubated by Teach First. We won their Innovation Award in 2017, which came with a programme of social impact support and office space. When that finished in 2018, we found out about SETsquared’s programme of support through a Teach First connection. We were accepted onto the incubation programme and moved into SETsquared office space at Engine Shed, which gave us a different take on the business, as the support was more focussed on scaling and reaching more families.
SETsquared has helped us through many business challenges around strategy and the business structure. Our Entrepreneur-in-Residence really understands our organisation. Sessions with them have helped us to develop strategies, such as our marketing and sales work with schools. There’s also been a lot of ad-hoc support that we’ve benefitted from including workshops and the Advisors-in-Residence.
How has SETsquared helped you during the COVID-19 crisis?
Our experience during COVID-19 has probably been quite different to other businesses. Schools were closing, so there was suddenly an extra need for our service to support parents in home learning. In a couple of weeks we had a 4 or 5 fold increase in the number of schools reaching out to us and number of parents we were supporting. It was great to have the SETsquared Entrepreneurs-in-Residence on hand to think about how we handled the fast scale-up by evaluating our options, exploring different models, and overcoming issues like our tech starting to run slowly because of the demand.
SETsquared also helped us work out what we should be prioritising in terms of making sure that what was an opportunity for us transferred into a longer term impact for the charity, and a stable business model post COVID-19. We’re much more financially solid now than before the pandemic.
How has Learning with Parents adapted in response to the pandemic?
At the beginning of lockdown, we adapted our product offering to ensure that as many families as possible have access to high quality learning at home. We rolled out our Maths with Parents programme for free to state schools across the UK, and within the first month we had over 700 schools register for this support and are now supporting tens of thousands of families.
Schools have been very unsettled during this time, so one of the main ways that we’ve grown and pivoted is partnerships with other organisations who are already offering curriculum resources, The most notable is our partnership with the BBC. BBC Bitesize have been sharing our resources which has driven a lot of traffic.
What investment have you raised?
We recently raised Innovate UK grant funding to develop Learning with Parents in response to COVID-19. We’ve also raised funds through the National Lottery as well as private and Corporate SR. We’re using the money to grow our team, as well as improve and measure the impact of our programmes on the most disadvantaged families. If parental engagement resources are not developed very well, you end up with fewer disadvantaged parents picking it up. So we’re looking to specifically hone in on families in disadvantaged areas and see what impactful changes we can make. We’re currently doing some exciting behavioural insights research with the University of Chicago on how disadvantaged parents engage in their children’s learning. We also recently found out that we’ve got backing from Nesta and the Department of Education to do some evaluation together on our programmes’ impact on disadvantaged families.
What are you most proud of?
What warms our hearts the most is all the comments and photos from families that use Learning with Parents. Last year we had over 250,000 comments come back from the parents and families on our site and we had about 30,000 photos of them playing the games together. If I’m having a bad day, just going through those is really uplifting and it’s fantastic to see our product making a tangible impact.
We are also proud to have won the Fair Education Alliance Scaling Award a couple of weeks ago.
What are the next steps for Learning with Parents?
To develop the platform to have really measurable impact on disadvantaged communities. We’re focussing on primary Maths and English in the UK, before looking at other subjects or conquering the world! English with Parents is being launched as a pilot in September 2020 and will fully launch in September 2021 across all schools.
We’re working on growing our partnerships and policy work. There’s been a lot of new partnerships and funding opportunities that we’ve been able to access recently.
What is the one piece of advice you can give to other aspiring founders?
I’ve had lots of advice from many people along the way. I guess it’s that no one can do everything, and you can’t be an expert in everything you need to do to power an organisation. So surround yourself with experienced people and never stop asking for advice. Through this journey, I’ve done so many different jobs, from lawyer to accountant and from sales person to developer! What’s been most useful for me has been finding the organisation that’s one step ahead in your journey – they are your most useful asset.