Driving education through collaboration and community

In this episode of the Texthelp Talks podcast, we caught up with Caroline Wright, live from Bett 2022. Caroline is the Director General of the British Educational Suppliers Association. BESA is the UK’s national industry association for educational products and services. Caroline talked to us about the work BESA do to support schools and educators. As well as reflecting on the past 2 years, where we're at now and how we can maintain momentum with EdTech to make our schools even more inclusive.

Patrick McGrath (00:11):
And welcome everybody to this episode of Texthelp Talks Podcast. And this is a series of podcasts from the team here at Texthelp, where we're bringing a range of expert speakers, experienced Edtech-ers, for want of a better phrase, and we're going to cover topics right the way from education through to the workplace. So please make sure you do subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your favourite podcast player or device and your streaming and service and never miss any of these episodes.

Patrick (00:40):
I am beyond excited to be joined by a very, very special guest now, on the Texthelp Talks podcast, coming to you live from Bett 2022. And that is Caroline Wright, who I think definitely has the mantle of having the best job title of anybody I've interviewed. Caroline is Director General of BESA. BESA stands for the British Educational Suppliers Association and is the UK's national industry association for educational products and services. And we'll explain a little bit more about that. Caroline represents BESA on a range of government and sector advisory boards, including the Department for International Trades Education Sector Advisory Group. My goodness, Caroline lots in there, but first of all, welcome to the Texthelp Talks podcast. Good to have you.

Caroline Wright (01:25):
Thank you ever so much. It's very nice to be here.

Patrick (01:28):
Good, good. And you're liking our lovely booth that we've set up just for today.

Caroline (01:31):
I like this. I like the colours. Nice and blue and pinks and the stand with all of your fab screens. It's just yes, and it's in a really nice part of the show as well.

Patrick (01:43):
But the show, I think this year, Caroline, we're going to come back to BESA in a little second, but just while you mentioned that, the show really has a real life to it this year. I think a lot of the suppliers that are here, a lot of the teaching and learning solutions that are here, the EdTech community, all of the communities have really put a significant effort in to make the show the best it's ever been.

Caroline (02:03):
Oh my goodness. Well, it's been two years in the waiting, hasn't it? And I think just the level of excitement this week waiting for it to actually happen. And I think the last two years has just shown we can't ever take anything for granted. So even though we're all packing our bags ready to come here, it was still such a huge element of relief when you saw the teachers and industry queuing up to get in. And when it actually opens, I think we're all just really enjoying re-engaging with. Tech's been amazing for keeping us connected over two years, but there's nothing like seeing each other face-to-face. It's just fantastic.

Patrick (02:40):
No, absolutely. And I absolutely concur with that. I mean, obviously at Texthelp, we're very proud members of BESA. So there's the BESA community, then there's the social community, and then there's all the EdTech enthusiasts community.

Caroline (02:51):

Patrick (02:52):
And on the run up to Bett, the community there was so strong. We were all speaking in all our individual channels, but I think we all had just a little bit of worry. We're putting all this effort and all this excitement of seeing each other. Are people going to show up? And I was so happy to see Wednesday morning, I'm sure you were exactly the same, the queues of teachers.

Caroline (03:07):
Yeah, absolutely.

Patrick (03:07):
Queues of teachers, queues of educators. And it's been so, so, so busy.

Caroline (03:13):
Yeah. I know where just that buzz was fantastic. And then actually, where the BESA stand is, we are in the same hall as you in the north hall. South hall's really busy as well, but we are actually just next to the Department for International Trades UK pavilion and the International Showcase. And I think on our stand alone, we've just received delegations from loads of different countries. We've had visitors from France, India, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Germany. We've had really, really great, Poland, really good conversations just about sharing experiences. And now the world's opening up, how we can get back together and collaborate.

Patrick (03:59):
Yeah. Because that I suppose over the last few years pre-COVID was I think by a lot of us was seen as a very much international show and that added to the worry this year of, will people travel? And I think we've proved it over the last three days that people are traveling. We are all back.

Caroline (04:14):
And that's wonderful to see.

Patrick (04:14):

Caroline (04:14):

Patrick (04:15):
Maybe just on that because for a lot of our listeners and users of Texthelp products and people who just subscribed to the podcast, they may not be aware of BESA because it's very much an industry organisation, but it does play a pivotal role in the entire education industry. And for us as an Edtech company, it's really, really important, but maybe you can give us a snapshot overview of how BESA supports the industry in general.

Caroline (04:36):
Absolutely. So yeah, we are the kind of a trade association for education companies who make, manufacture and supply education resources. So yeah, we've got a huge number here who are our EdTech members, but we also represent all the companies that make educational furniture, the science equipment, the special needs resources, the educational publishing materials, textbooks all the way through to EdTech. So it's amazing having that range of companies that are all trying to do good and help improve education.

Caroline (05:11):
And that's the interesting thing I think about BESA. So we are here to help support the sector, but actually, we have our values and objectives. We have two. They they're two-fold. It's first helping our companies, our member companies be successful by informing them of what schools need and the challenges they face, so they can make products that really reflect the needs of schools. But then that leads into our secondary purpose, which is in that case, you actually help improve education overall.

Patrick (05:39):

Caroline (05:40):
Because the quality of education obviously needs brilliant teachers and school leaders, but we need really high quality resources. And so, that's why actually I think the kind of message for your listeners in why BESA is relevant is we quality mark every member that's part of the BESA membership. So to be a BESA member, companies have to sign up to our code of practice, which involves things like customer service, data security, integrity, and ethics. They have to sign up to our code of practice. We also check the financial viability and credibility of our members. And they also have to have been trading with schools and colleges for a certain period of time, so that schools can actually buy and know that they can trust those companies to be providing them the services that they need.

Patrick (06:25):
Absolutely. And I think there's a lot of teachers who may well not be aware that they can go on the Besa website, they can search the member directory. They can ensure that their membership is valid and live. And that gives them that sense of security and trust that only BESA really in the industry can provide that.

Caroline (06:41):
Absolutely. And even further to that actually over the last few years, we've been really conscious. So teachers are so busy, sometimes it's really hard to know what to buy and how to buy it. And we've all heard of the cupboards of shame where you might have bought something in the past and then just realise actually it doesn't quite fit in with what you need in a school. So we've actually added something, as well as that supplier database.

Caroline (07:02):
Schools can go onto our website. It's a lended website where our members have put up case studies by other educators. So you can see a product. You are looking for a resource, you could click on maybe assessment and it'll come up with some ideas of any part of education basically. But it'll come up with some case studies from teachers like you using a product in a school like yours. So you can actually see what they're saying about it. And then there's also an option to take out a free trial for a while.

Patrick (07:33):

Caroline (07:33):
So you can actually check that it's right for your needs. So we don't want to see anybody buying things that aren't going to be suitable for their school. So as an industry, we've just taken that decision and our members are providing help and support to schools along those basis.

Patrick (07:48):
Yeah. Just thinking about the members there and thinking about the last couple of years, obviously, it's been traumatic for all of us in so many different ways and it's affected our lives so much. Teachers obviously embraced technology more, from an EdTech perspective. They had to approach different ways of teaching and learning. Pupils, parents had to respond. I think sometimes things that may well be forgotten about outside this booth and outside this show is just how well that the EdTech sector and the education supplier sector in general really stepped up. And I know for us, BESA was a very central part of that because we had that community to sit there and go, "Well, what are you doing? And how can we all help together?" You feel as an industry, and as a trade body, represent that industry, like we did our bit over the last few years.

Caroline (08:28):
Oh gosh, I've been so proud. I obviously am not in one of our member companies, and I've never been a teacher, but I am a parent and I saw like everybody else the challenges we all faced. And actually, I am so incredibly proud to be able to say after speaking to the members and knowing what they did, we checked and actually we've added up that our member companies provided more than £24 million of free support to schools and colleges-

Patrick (08:58):

Caroline (08:58):
... and just in the first three months of lockdown alone. It was just-

Patrick (09:01):
Oh wow. I thought you were going to say over the 2 years.

Caroline (09:04):
No. No, we haven't actually done another survey to work out the whole thing, but it was the first three months of 2020, from March to June, that was the amount. And we are majority as an industry, that's a really sizeable proportion of kind of all three. And actually that makes me incredibly proud. And actually we're talking about COVID, but just moving on to what's happening in Ukraine, just less than a week ago. We asked our members. We've been working with a Ukrainian charity, Blue / Yellow to say, "Well, what can we do as an industry to support you and just tell us what's needed." And they told us some of the kinds of help and support they need.

Patrick (09:42):

Caroline (09:42):
We only put that in our newsletter last Friday. We've been inundated with companies saying, "Oh, here's what I can help with. Just let us know how we can help support those families." So, I'm so proud that as a community, the educators, a lot of the people in our member companies have been educators and just want to help support in all kinds, whatever the challenge is.

Caroline (10:06):
So yeah, I think as an industry, we've really stepped up and that hasn't stopped after lockdown. We are seeing kind of companies, still schools now have new challenges. It's what how do you embed that technology? How do you make it work and just not forget the gains you've made? What are the challenges in other parts of our membership, of the kids who haven't been able to meet up and interact and learn some of the social skills they can? We've got our other members that make hands-on resources and so on, really helping support schools. We've got the wellbeing companies and we are seeing a mental health crisis. And we've got the innovation that's here in this sector with some of the companies that are now listening to teachers, listening to children, knowing what the challenges they're facing and making really amazing services and products to help schools who are at the sharp end of supporting in so many more ways than just teaching a kid is actually the whole wraparound services.

Patrick (11:02):
Absolutely. And I think one of the things we've certainly noticed in Texthelp and of course, people will know us as the accessibility company. We do a whole lot more than that, that people might not be aware of, but we're very well-known for things like Read&Write in terms of what it can do for accessibility. But what I find, to add on to what you've said, there's a much wider discussion going on around how technology but how any aspect of a tool or service provided into education is starting to really think about inclusion, starting to talk about that more. Do you think that the sector in general is recognising that and things like accessibility are becoming a more central part of perhaps how tech company might design or how furniture company might design what to do? And I know you have the special needs sig, a special interest group. Do you see that being more part of the conversation than it's ever been?

Caroline (11:51):
It's fantastic. It is. It absolutely is. And I think just in any conversation now you have with educators, and as an industry and in wider society actually, I think we are much more... There's still huge amounts to do. Don't get me wrong. There's still much more that as a society, we need to be doing to support people with additional needs in all parts of life, not just education, but I'm definitely seeing that. And I'm definitely seeing companies wanting to do the right thing and wanting to make sure that they're more accessible, that we obviously have members that absolutely, like yours, specialise in precisely that, and that's fantastic. And the way I do think the UK special needs sector, SENCos and schools, but also their special needs companies, we get approached by governments around the world all the time for advice on how to be more inclusive and actually how to help learners with additional needs more appropriately.

Caroline (12:56):
And so, we do lead the way actually, and I don't say that in very many areas, and I'm not just saying it flippantly because I represent companies. We do, we genuinely lead the way in our approach to special education needs. It's not to say we don't have a funding crisis. And a lack of there are far too many learners that aren't getting their plans that they need at the moment, and that's a challenge, but actually the quality and dedication of the teaching staff and industry is second to none on that front. But we are also seeing more generally, even our generalist companies wanting to make sure that what they provide is more accessible.

Patrick (13:29):

Caroline (13:30):
And actually, it's not just on disabilities and inclusivity, and access on that front. I'm really proud that our publishers and our resource manufacturers actually came together over the last year, actually in the light of Black Lives Matter to say inclusivity more generally, what do we need to do? How do we make our resources represent the real population of Britain and where we serve around the world? And they've put together some principles for inclusion. You would need to make it more specialist for some of the particular areas, but actually go for whatever you're looking at, gender, sexuality, race, ability. Our members, as a voluntary code of conduct, that they're signing up to look at what they provide, look at how they employ more inclusively and actually how they work to challenge government and others on pushing the inclusivity agenda. So that's a piece of work I'm really, really pleased we're doing at the moment.

Patrick (14:34):
It's amazing to see. This is not necessarily an indictment of where we've been, but I think it's a recognition of where we're going in terms of, I don't think we necessarily would've had that type of conversation two years ago at Bett.

Caroline (14:46):
No, no.

Patrick (14:46):
I think the last two years has really, really changed how we view these things on all those areas when we talk about specifically inclusion around special education needs or challenges that an individual people who live with, but you're right, it goes much, much wider than that. And now it's to the forum we're talking about is great.

Caroline (15:01):
But you know what makes me worried is we are having many more conversations about inclusivity and that's fantastic. But when we talk about have we become our own? Because technology has an amazing ability to help us become more inclusive, but it also has the ability to add to the divide. And that comes back to the making sure kids have got access, learners that if you are disadvantaged or, oh, frankly, got a number of children all wanting to access devices at the same time, like we saw during lockdown, it's actually, we need as a society governments to make sure that there isn't a disadvantage, that everyone's on the playing field because then, actually technology can be a great leveler and can help hugely with the inclusivity.

Caroline (15:52):
I know there were various projects to put devices into schools and to make access, but there are challenges with that. We still have a situation where if a family is using data, rather than having access to wifi, that's a cost. The cost for their kids to access those educational websites. Now there's an argument to making educational websites data-free. And then actually, it's not kinds of families that might not be able to let their kids have that access, so that they would want. So there's a whole range of things that are really easily solvable, but need to be looked at. And then technology can be really inclusive.

Patrick (16:30):
As part of that though, Caroline, is there a danger that... So the two years we went through and the initial put in place for say device access that suddenly the line is drawn now. We're like, "We don't need that anymore because we're back face-to-face, everything's okay." And that adoption certainly from an equity of access point of view, and you think looking forward, there will be policies put in place that can support that? Or what's your view on that?

Caroline (16:52):
Well, do you know what really worries me, Patrick is this week, we've seen... Well, there's some good news, the good news is this week the government said we're making a commitment to super fast broadband for schools by 2025. Well, yes, of course, that's good. And we need to make sure that happens, that there aren't any delays on that. But our research, we go out to thousands of schools every year across the United Kingdom and our school leaders, one of the biggest challenges facing them, they say every year, wifi and connectivity, teacher CPD and budgets. And when we look at budgets, despite government has invested more in education. There was a big injection of COVID recovery money into schools, but we mustn't let government think that's the end of it because actually, when I look at resource budgets that school leaders tell us they have in their schools, resource budgets in primary and secondary schools are lower now than they were in 2015 or '16.

Caroline (17:50):
And that's even with the money being spent in there. And that is just not good enough. It's not the school's fault, but it's the fact that there are so many pressures. If you look at a school's budget, of course, first and foremost, you need brilliant teachers. You need the teaching staff. So yes, schools are right. They spend their budget 78% on staff. Then there's energy costs going up. There's keeping the boiler going, there's preparing the school, there's all the licenses they need that actually only leaves, on average, 3% or 4% of a school's budget that they can spend on resources. And that's the only flexibility a school really has. So given all the pressures, that's being squeezed, and that's the kind of things here we see at Bett, that really make a difference to a teacher's workload, children's inspiration and enjoyment in the classroom. And we need to make sure that schools have proper funds to be able to buy the resources they need.

Patrick (18:43):
Over the last few days of recording the podcast, there's a couple of words kept coming up. One of them was the need to push skills and drive skills in pupils. But the other one, which was a word that has probably been most used, is momentum. And I think taking on board some of the things that you've said there, we have built a great momentum in terms of the changes to teaching and learning in terms of equity of access, in terms of inclusion, we've talked about. The innovation from the sector has been fabulous. The support from all the stakeholders has been good, but it's really, really important, I think, that we keep that momentum up. Government has its role to play in that, BESA do, Texthelp do, and that's going to be key. And a quick summary of that, what do you think we need to do to keep momentum up? Is it more of the same or does it come back down solely and exclusively to the policy and funding?

Caroline (19:31):
Yeah. Well, I think BESA members, you always listen to what schools are telling you, the pressures are and that's actually, we really adapt to what's needed. So I think actually that collab, the momentum needs to keep going because it's been fantastic in the past few years and in spite of all the challenges, actually the collaboration we've seen between the sector and schools to help solve problems and work together has been brilliant.

Caroline (19:55):
We need to make sure. I think it's keeping the pressure up on government and others to realise that actually it's not a centralist approach to telling schools what they should be doing and use this resource or use that resource or follow this guidance. So actually, let's trust the teachers. They're the ones who saw us through the last two years by making really, really difficult and challenging decisions on the ground. So as an industry, what do they need? What can we do to help? And actually government, listen to your amazing educators that are out there because they know what's best for their pupils. And actually let's have a little bit less of some of the warm words and actually what do they need to help deliver on their jobs.

Patrick (20:38):
Yeah. And just thinking about the future as well. I mean, I think we all agree that Bett has been very vibrant. I think it's fair enough to say that it's been a buzz, it's been alive. There's a lot of people here, there's a lot of activity, but in your view, how does the industry look going forward? have we got a bright future ahead of us as EdTech companies, as educational suppliers, does it look positive going forward?

Caroline (21:04):
I think that there's a huge innovation. And internationally, the future is bright. We've just seen the delegations that are here, the interests we have in British education around the world because of its quality. So actually in terms of exporting British education to the world in an inclusive and building on the values and tolerance that we have as a society is a real moment to be pleased with and look forward to the future. I think it is going to be more challenging given the current government policy that's in the forthcoming white paper, and we've seen the Department for Education's announcement of their curriculum policy recently, which is actually really potentially damaging to school's innovation and creativity because the government's announced that it's introducing an arm's length body for curriculum content and creation. And I'm really scared that we are going to end up in a system where we see bureaucrats at the center of government telling schools what they should be teaching and when.

Caroline (22:09):
And actually when you just look around these halls today, you see amazing talented school leaders that know how to get their best from their pupils and deliver the results they need. And actually, the biggest challenge we face, I think, in the UK as a sector and in our school's curriculum creativity is a centralist agenda from the government that actually needs, which isn't based in evidence. It's actually based quite scarily on research they carried out in 2018 before the pandemic. They haven't carried any up to date research on schools across the United Kingdom, even though this is going to impact schools outside over England, in terms of what schools want and need in terms of curriculum support. So that's something that BESA is challenging the government to carry out due process and due consultation on their curriculum proposals.

Patrick (23:02):
Okay. And just coming back to Bett, Caroline, and just thinking about the show, just in terms of wrap up, some one words from you, what's been your highlight of the show so far?

Caroline (23:16):
Reconnecting, I think. It's been challenging, schools haven't been able to invite very many guests in over recent months. So actually seeing school leaders, seeing all the amazing companies and what they've been doing face-to-face. I've seen lots of people on squares, on computers, which is really great because it's meant I've been able to stay in touch, but I've been seeing people with legs and it's great. And I'm really enjoying it. The people, the rest of their bodies walking around and talking. So that's been my highlight.

Patrick (23:45):
It's been strange exactly seeing that from the neck down, hasn't it?

Caroline (23:48):

Patrick (23:50):
I'm convinced people should've got cutouts Caroline to walk around and just put the head piece and zoom title in the top, we have all been used to that. And mugs that said, "Your mic is off."

Caroline (24:02):

Patrick (24:03):
Mute was a word, I think, we all got used to over the last couple of years. But listen, Caroline, it's been absolutely fabulous to talk to you. I wish actually we had much longer to talk to you today. Some fabulous insights from you. Thank you for what you do for us at Texthelp and for what you do in the industry in general, we're very proud to be part of anything you do. And we always hope to contribute. But I should drop in at the end, we had a fabulous night out at the Bett Awards and I know you play a central role in that. Of course, one of our products won and we're very, very proud of that too.

Caroline (24:30):

Patrick (24:31):
So, lovely to be recognised. So Caroline, thank you. I wish you a good show, even though we were going to have a couple hours left of the show today, and I know our listeners would've absolutely loved what they've heard today. So Caroline Wright, be safe. Thank you very much.

Caroline (24:43):
Thank you very much.

Patrick (24:44):
For anybody watching, this has been Texthelp Talks podcast. I'm Patrick McGrath, EdTech strategist here at Texthelp. It has been our pleasure to have you with us. Please do subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your favourite podcast player or app and your streaming service. We're on all of them. Grab us there, and you'll be greeted with plenty of wonderful speakers and presenters from the Texthelp team and the subsequent episodes in our series. So thank you, and we'll see you again soon on the next episode of Texthelp Talks.