What happens when an exam board moderator and the director of an e-learning company spot a flaw in the current teacher training system? They decide to take matters into their own hands.
Coming from a secondary school education background, Sarah Windsor and John Burton understood that manadatory INSET training for teachers involved travelling, took up a lot of time, and was often uninteresting. This was an obvious problem, but not one that they initially set out to tackle. Before the inception of INSET Online, John was struggling in his e-learning business to help teachers learn to use software, as they didn't have the time to dedicate to training. He found it frustrating and costly having to book hotels to conduct training in person, and finding that teachers were often unable to make it.
John investigated online training to try and alleviate the problems he was facing, quickly getting Sarah onboard as well. Their initial goal was to be able to train teachers to use an e-learning platform without having to leave their desks. Sarah soon realised that the platform could also be an ideal method for teacher training delivery, calling on her experience working as an exam board moderator. The immediate feedback that they got from teachers for this last-minute idea was very positive. They realised that the benefits of training teachers online were considerable, and they had a unique business proposition with a lot of potential.
Bringing teacher training online
John and Sarah, along with their co-director Andy, came up with the plan of hosting INSET training online, in a two-hour slot with a face-to-face trainer there to provide support. They designed it to be a modern, efficient process, allowing teachers to get the most valuable elements of their training in a two-hour session. It would eliminate the need for teachers to leave school, and would enable multiple teachers to tune into the same training, minimising miscommunication within the department.
Sarah was on maternity leave from her job when the product launched, meaning she had the time to spend working on the business. John and Andy invested some money, and the team began offering a free trial, training teachers to demonstrate the value they could provide. They found the sign-up rate was very high – people loved the flexibility and ease of training online. This direct approach proved a great way of overcoming the challenge of trying to promote their completely new business, as an alternative to traditional face-to-face training. Next, they approached the existing exam boards and asked them to work in collaboration to move their training online, with the aim of reinforcing their credibility. It would allow INSET Online to fast-track past the marketing stage that many start-ups often struggle with.
This was initially a testing task. "We had a lot of reticence because they were being told they had to do it," says Sarah. "we’re working with people that are incredibly experienced, incredibly bright, and taking them completely out of their comfort zone." In the end, this challenge was fundamental in pushing them to succeed. The ethos, in John's words, became "to massively exceed the expectations of every client we work for," in order to stand out among the increasingly competitive market of online training programmes. Once the initial reticence began to disappear, teachers began to be some of their strongest advocates.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing for the company. One difficulty that Sarah encountered whilst running the business were attitudes to her as a female business owner. "Business is really sexist," she says. "I’ve had friends who went to business school, who have huge jobs, and they’re still faced with it all the time." She can remember many situations where suppliers or clients addressed John rather than her, and failed to acknowledge her position within the company. Both Sarah and John agree that more needs to be done to tackle the damaging effects of sexism in the workplace, although they acknowledge that the environment is changing for the better.
Moving to the Sussex Innovation Centre
Prior to joining Sussex Innovation, the team were based in an office in Queen's Park, Brighton. The location wasn't ideal for the business, as they went long periods of time without seeing anyone and the space wasn't practical to access. The nature of the business meant that work shifts were often irregular, with workload changing seasonally and clients requiring training outside of the nine-to-five.
The flexibility offered by the Centre, as well as its geographical location, proved ideal. They were attracted by the offer of 24-hour access, and ability to move into varied office space, upsizing or downsizing without being tied into long lease contracts. "It's made growth really easy," says Sarah. "And really exciting in a way, because we’re just moving across the corridor [into a bigger office space]."
INSET Online also appreciate how the Centre's accounts team can manage their book-keeping and wages, leaving more time for them to focus on the business. They have regular informal conversations with support staff, who ask the right questions to help the team solve their own challenges. "I know if we were having a massive business problem, there's always someone there to talk to about it," says John.
Becoming market leaders
INSET Online are now the leading supplier of online training services in the UK education sector. John says their proudest achievement is "working with all the exam boards in England and Wales." They feel that they have succeeded in their aim of improving training for the entire UK education sector, helping teachers and schools save their valuable time, energy and money.