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Building a business that solves a problem: what I’ve learnt about innovation

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by Startacus Admin

Edtech platform Pupil Progress
Brett Griffin
, CEO and Founder of Pupil Progress, shares all on aiming to build a business that solves a real problem for teachers and what he has subsequently learnt about innovation.

"Back when I was a PE teacher, I overheard a student having what sounded like an argument with a fellow teacher in the corridor. I’ll never forget the words I heard that student say: “It’s fine, I get it. I know that the teachers don’t care.”

This was pretty alarming to me, and I couldn’t help but jump in and tell him it wasn’t true. I told him that there were many teachers at the school who had left successful careers in banking, marketing, and recruitment to become teachers. Why would they do that if they didn’t care? His response didn’t change: “I see you all running around all the time, and I just don’t feel like the teachers care. It’s fine, I can get on with it myself and I don’t need anyone. It’s just how I see it.”

This exchange has never left me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it on the train home that day, after I had looked around the atrium and noticed Brett Griffinteachers rushing from A to B. No time to stop, no time to speak to anyone, rushing pupils to lessons, hurrying everyone on so they could get on with what they needed to get on with.

I remember thinking how sad it was, and realising what the perception to pupils was. The teachers didn’t seem to care about them. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. As teachers we told pupils that we cared and wanted them to do well, and we really meant it, but where were the actions to back this up? Where were the long conversations needed to understand issues and problems that couldn’t be grasped in the two minutes in between lessons? Where were the phone calls home to parents of children that were struggling? Where were the 121 meetings with pupils just to see how they were doing? I could go on and on. The simple fact was that there was no time anywhere.

To be clear, I’m not saying that teachers are to blame for this, nor that they aren’t doing their job properly. Too many teachers are currently in impossible positions, having to meet performance targets that their employment depends on. They are quite simply running out of time, daily. I was one of them myself. And still, today, so many teachers are simply surviving, trying their best to stay afloat and prevent themselves from drowning.

“Suddenly, I didn’t have the time to do the things I enjoyed most about my job.”

There was no denying it, the volume of work required in the time frames given to us were simply unmanageable. And as more and more tasks mounted up, we spent less time with the pupils. Break times used to be a great time talk to students, see how they were doing, ask what they’d been up to, get to really know them. Then somewhere along the way they became 20 minutes in which we could get another item ticked off the to do list. The same thing happened to lunch times.

The saddest thing for me was when I had to give up coaching two of my football teams. The only team that I could coach were the sixth formers as they were able to arrange their own fixtures. It was at this point that I knew that something had to change.

Suddenly, I didn’t have the time to do one of the things I enjoyed most about my job. Or rather, I did have time.  That is, if I had been willing to do work at home, in my own time during evenings and weekends. I had done that before, and I had ended up in a very bad place: tired, angry, short-tempered with colleagues and pupils, and ultimately not good for anyone around me.

problem and solution“I saw that I had an opportunity to make a positive impact on teachers’ wellbeing.” 

The decision to quit wasn’t something I took lightly, yet to me it was the only option. I saw that I had an opportunity to make a positive impact on teachers’ wellbeing. I had an idea for a way to lighten the stress and anxiety surrounding teachers’ workload, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Ultimately, the motivation behind setting up Pupil Progress had been that conversation with the student. Above everything else, I wanted to improve pupils’ experience of school. And when you have happy teachers, you have happy pupils. I’m incredibly passionate about supporting pupils’ learning, and I know that when teachers are less stressed, and have the headspace to think creatively and clearly, then pupils learn better. 

Pupil Progress“The biggest problems we faced as teachers became the source of all our ideas. ”

From the moment we started the business, the biggest problems we had faced as teachers became the source of all our ideas. Firstly, we knew that any system that required training would be adding to teachers’ workload and stress levels, not reducing them. If our product had been complex, we’d just be part of the problem and nobody would use what we offered. 

We knew that we couldn’t offer something off-the-shelf: we needed to provide additional elements like full setup, unlimited free support calls at any time, and our tracking system needed to work from the word go. It needed to be ready to use for the subject, exam board, and qualification. 

“Seeing the direct impact of our innovation and ideas is what drives me.”

Since we launched, starting with PE teachers (as that was my area of expertise) the feedback we had from teachers has spurred me on every day. Seeing the direct impact of our innovation and ideas, and knowing that we’re making a positive difference to teachers’ lesson planning, design, delivery, and ultimately improving the students’ experience is what drives me. 

What’s been fantastic on top of that is that we’re also making a difference to teachers’ well being. They feel less stressed, less anxious, more in control, and like they’re trusted more by senior management as a result. I’m so proud of the fact that we’ve actually designed a system that goes deeper than saving time. The psychological benefits of what we’ve designed were unexpected, and yet that’s what has made me feel most fulfilled about what we’re doing. 

We quickly saw that we had to move outside of just PE and develop our product for all subject areas, creating a system that a whole school could benefit from and make an even bigger difference to more teachers. After that, we started developing tracking for courses being delivered in international English speaking schools, and now have schools in Malaysia, Qatar, Germany, Spain, and China using our system too.

“We speak to teachers as much as possible.” 

The key to our success has always been to listen to and speak to teachers and subject leads as much as possible. We talk about their frustrations, and really get to understand the tasks that take up most of their time and brain space. As a result, our customers are heavily invested in us, and tell us Edtech startup pupil progressregularly what they feel we could add to make our system even more useful for them. Every single request or suggestion is collected, and the ones asked for the most are prioritised. We’re always investing revenue back into making the system more useful for the people that use it on a daily basis.

We have some incredible ideas that we’re going to develop that we know will revolutionise teacher’s working experience, and I’m feeling so excited about this coming year. 

“I’m more determined than ever to make a difference.”

The high levels of stress and huge workloads being experienced has received a lot of press in recent weeks. It’s estimated that as many as half of all teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years, and the number of people training to become teachers in 2017 was a third less than in 2016. These are frightening statistics.

The story that surrounds teaching has become more and more negative. I’ve even heard that teachers leaving the profession are telling aspiring teachers not to train. It makes me so sad to think that we are discouraging brilliant, inspirational minds from pursuing teaching and losing them to other professions.

Our children need the best minds teaching them. I have a daughter who’s now in secondary school and a teacher that she loves, a teacher that inspires her to be a better learner, to be a better person, is thinking of leaving the profession due to not being able to cope with the workload. It’s simply not good enough. I’m more determined than ever to make a difference."

Brett Griffin is the CEO and Founder of Pupil Progress, a software platform to help teachers track, monitor and report on student’s progress.

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Published on: 31st January 2018

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