Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting a number of customers at our annual HE sales conference in Brighton. Our speakers came from a range of institutions, disciplines and countries, and yet I was struck by a common thread that unites their work: a passion for re-inventing teaching; for finding new ways to reach and inspire today’s students.
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It’s inevitable at the start of a New Year to reflect on the twelve months that have just gone by, and to look ahead with anticipation. So having just completed my first year leading Pearson’s Higher Education business in the UK, I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts on what 2017 might hold in store for us.
As I write this blogpost, I occasionally stare out my window to the Rocky Mountains looming above me. It’s amazing to think that these 4200m/14,000 ft mountains were formed by a series of small tremors and occasional larger seismic movements. Likewise, the tectonic plates of education are shifting, and seismic ripples are apparent globally.
Many people have asked me about Pearson's response to the recent result of the UK's referendum on membership of the EU. Here is a note that I shared with Pearson's colleagues last Friday (06.24.16) immediately after the result.
I am writing to share some immediate thoughts in the light of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.
These are clearly uncertain times for the UK and for Europe. Pearson’s view throughout the campaign was that the UK was better off within the EU. Of course we fully respect the democratic decision that has been taken and, for Pearson, we will now focus on forging a successful path in a new context.
Pearson is in a strong position. More than half of our revenues are from the US, in dollars. We have a solid balance sheet with low debt, and this will enable us to weather uncertainties.
Although we care deeply about the UK, we are the world’s learning company. We will continue to be advocates for a world that is more open and connected. It is vital that the UK’s world class universities should continue to attract the brightest young people from around the world to enrich our education community.
For now, the important thing for us all is to stay focused on our business and our customers. We will take our time and work through every implication for our business and our growth. We will also play our part in helping maintain the outward-looking United Kingdom and globally connected education community that are in the interests of us all.
We recently set out on a journey to talk to parents, students and teachers in Ghana, the Philippines and South Africa to hear directly from them why they choose low-cost affordable schools.
These parents made it clear to us that they are investing in the hopes and dreams they have for their children. They seek a safe school, a warm school culture, and evidence that their child is learning. And they, like many of us, feel empowered when they can make a choice about where to send their child to school.
"A friend of mine told me about SPARK. I booked the tour, went to see the school and I found that the first thing that attracted me was the culture at SPARK. The values that they endorse as well as the blended learning." - Olga Masingi, Spark parent
Enrollment in low-fee private schools in developing countries has increased over the last 20 years. Upwards of 40% of children living in poverty are enrolled in low-cost private schools in the Indian Subcontinent and large parts of Africa. In larger cities such as Delhi, Karachi, Accra or Lagos this figure rises to 70%. Tuition in such schools can range from $0.50 - $5 per day, for example. We launched the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) in 2012 in response to the families who had already opted into such schools.
"Working with the very best local entrepreneurs is what makes PALF possible—education leaders who understand the unique needs of their students and their markets. We’re proud that half of our capital is invested with female founders, in a world where many startups in both the developed and developing worlds are still overwhelmingly male." - Katelyn Donnelly, Managing Director, Pearson Affordable Learning Fund
In addition to our efforts to partner with governments around the world to improve education systems, the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund represents Pearson’s broader commitment to tackle the educational needs of the world’s poorest regions. Pearson has elected to invest in such opportunities, and to hold itself accountable for the results achieved by children enrolled in PALF portfolio schools; it is one of the ways we will contribute to achieving our commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
We invite you to hear directly from the parents, students and teachers at three schools in which we have invested—APEC Schools in Manila, Philippines; Omega Schools in Ghana; and SPARK Schools in South Africa—and learn why these parents, teachers and students have chosen a low-cost private school.
As our A level and GCSE qualifications undergo significant change, there has understandably been much public attention on the future of those foreign language qualifications studied by smaller numbers of students.
While these qualifications have a relatively small number of registrations, they are often the home language of many UK communities and, in an era of globalisation, are important.
As well as Spanish, German and French, which are studied widely across England, Pearson currently offers GCSEs and A levels in Arabic, Modern Greek, Japanese and Urdu, all of which historically have smaller cohort numbers. We have previously confirmed that we will continue to offer GCSEs in these subjects under the new system, from September 2017.
We believe in the importance of these qualifications but, in the context of significant change in qualifications, there are difficult issues to work through and debates to be had. As we designed new specifications for A levels in these four languages, we had concerns that the small entry numbers, combined with the new content and assessment requirements for modern languages as set out by the Department for Education, would make it difficult to continue to create valid and reliable assessments. However, both Pearson and the DfE are committed to securing the future of these A level subject in two years’ time, so we have been working together on a new set of content requirements to mitigate this risk and allow us to feel confident in their quality and credibility.
Not all of our competitors have taken the same view, and as a result of some other important languages being 'dropped', we're going to work with the DfE to secure the future of A level and GCSE qualifications in Gujarati, Portuguese, Turkish and GCSE Biblical Hebrew. Why would a commercial education company do that? The answer is that as well as helping individuals make progress in their lives, education has the potential to foster inclusion and diversity, helping to make society more cohesive. All parties - the government, the regulator and the exam boards - should work together in the interests of students, but also the communities in which we all live.
Think of assessment in education, and you probably think of end of term tests, where kids sit in rows of desks, with a set time to answer identical questions. But in world that increasingly values what you can do and not just what you know, does this way of testing fit the bill anymore? Are they doing the job that ultimately education exists for - to prepare people for the world.
Increasingly educators think not, and so a new era of assessment is being ushered in; enabled by technology, personalised to the student, and providing teachers with insights in real-time. We've taken a look at the opportunities and challenges that await.
As I travel the world talking to students and educators, the most urgent questions I hear are variations on the same themes: How do I create a better life for myself and my children? What is the social compact that gets us all there, and who is responsible for creating it? Those are questions fundamental to achieving the American dream—a dream that resonates worldwide.
These critical questions are also at the core of many Americans’ concerns that economic progress is out of reach and that the dream is fleeting now more than ever. These concerns have surfaced more urgently within the context of the Presidential campaign, and have been foundational to candidates’ views on both sides of the aisle.
To understand the dynamics that underlie these concerns, Pearson conducted a poll with Atlantic Media as part of their “Next America” series, seeking to examine Americans’ views on these issues. The results were revealing: More people than ever believe they don’t have a reasonable shot at creating opportunity in this country. Shockingly, and in contrast to the basic tenets core to the United States, fewer than half of all Americans—just 44%—believe that anyone who works hard has a fair chance to succeed.
When you start to break this down along demographic lines, faith in the promise of American opportunity becomes even more strained. Fewer than 40% of African Americans believe that someone who works hard has a fair chance to succeed. The research shows that Asian and Hispanic Americans are still hanging on to the American dream, but are only marginally more confident that they have a real shot at success.
While this data is discouraging, there is hope. The poll results evidenced a shared view in the promise of education and the belief that if people have access to education designed specifically to improve their skills, their views of the opportunity would improve. Almost three-quarters of Americans—72%—believe they would be able to get a better job or a higher paying job with more education or training.
Two-thirds of Americans believe the economy would improve by increasing the number of well-trained workers and people see investment in education as the best way to improve the economy.
It’s clear that people of all backgrounds see education as the gateway to a better life.
While educators, policymakers and employers are key in helping people prepare for the workforce, companies who are focused on education, like Pearson, have an important role to play. Building the tools to lead people to better jobs and a better life is fundamental to Pearson’s mission. We’re especially focused on closing the skills gap to give people more access to jobs and better opportunity. At schools like Texas Southmost College in the Rio Grande Valley, we are providing digital curriculum that prepares graduates for high tech and health care jobs in their local communities. Across the nation, we are working with colleges and universities to move degree programs online, often putting up the capital to get these programs off the ground. And, we are supporting adult learners with the GED and our professional testing services.
There are urgent educational and economic needs across this country. That is never more evident than when people feel opportunity is out of reach, and the American Dream is out of sight. Together we can meet these challenges and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to create a better life for themselves.
Here are some other highlights from the full poll results, which you can read in full here.
Nearly 3,000 books distributed to children in Sri Lanka; 6,000 to children in Swaziland; and nearly 40,000 books now benefitting homeless and low-income children in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. At Pearson we are proud of the number of free books we distributed last year all around the world… but equally saddened. That well into the 21st century the joy and power of reading remains out of reach for millions of children. That while many kids come home from schools with their bags packed with books, as we stroll past libraries stuffed with the beauty of words, as our bookshelves at home already house more stories than we could possibly read in our lifetime… that while many of us take books for granted, millions more can only dream of them.
We should never devalue the exercise of simply reading for the love of it; and neither should we discount the enormous consequences of not being able to. To summarise hundreds of thousands of pages of heavy-duty research into reading - books make brains bigger, and with that knowledge comes opportunities for a better life.
Since 2002, we have been donating some of our unsold books in the United States to children all over the world. For many, it will be the first book they have ever owned. And though their new books won’t be the answer to the challenges they face in life, they might just be the small start they need into a better future.
Last year, with the help of our non-profit partners across the world, we donated nearly one million books from our US warehouses alone. They have found their way into the hands of millions of children living at or below the poverty line - in communities where there may be as few as one book per 300 children. It is a small gift from us that, we hope, will have a large and lasting impact.
And it’s an impact that ultimately reaches beyond the lives of the proud young owners of their new books; beyond education, to help the environment that we all depend on. No longer do unsold books produce the pollution from pulping or add to the deluge of landfill sites. By putting these books to the use they were created for, we are helping our planet to flourish, as well as the lives of our youngest generations.
(photo credit: Jesus Hernandez)