Start-up Bristol

Back in 2007, Kevin and I set about developing the ideas that would ultimately lead to the founding of our online tutoring web start-up I was struck at the time, but how difficult it was to get a business like this off the ground, at almost every level from getting a bank account, through to finding good advisers and engaging with the local tech community. Developing and growing our business continues to be a challenge, but I do get the sense that there are growing numbers of start-ups, and that networking events like SW Founders and Thirsty Thursday make it easier to network.

I recently came across a useful article by Andy Parkhouse of Team Rubber the other day entitled ‘Silicon Gorge – the Bristol list’. This interests me as someone with a start-up in the Bristol area.

This may surprise some of you, particularly those who live here – how can it be this big? What evidence is there? Well Andy came up with this useful list of businesses, incubators, VC’s, support organisations, networks, meet-ups, conferences. I found this really useful, and have come across many of the organisations / events over time, and would recommend new entrepreneurs to follow the links – there is alot of help and advice out there to you.

Tech and Software Ventures


Funds and finance groups

Support organisations



Educational inequality

I am repeating my post on the Tutorhub website here, as I think it bears further exposure – maybe some of you will be as annoyed by it as me, who knows….

Students from high attaining comprehensive schools are far less likely to attend top universities than those from independent schools. So say the Sutton Trust in their report ‘Degree of Success’.

Just focusing on Oxbridge entrants, they found that:

“2,000 schools and colleges had two or fewer Oxbridge entrants over the three years… just under two thirds of all schools and colleges, and accounted for 5.6% of Oxbridge admissions over the three years. The total number of Oxbridge entrants from these 2,000 schools and colleges over the three years is less than the number from 4 schools and one college who produced 946 Oxbridge entrants over the period.”

What proportion of these applications are accepted?

“5.2% of independent school pupils were accepted by Oxford and Cambridge, compared with 0.8% of pupils in non selective state schools, and 4.2% in selective state schools.”

Sutton Trust conclude that “independent school pupils are nearly seven times as likely as pupils in comprehensive schools to be accepted into Oxbridge.”

The Times Educational Supplement commenting on wider university acceptance rates included in the report saythere is something terribly wrong when a comprehensive school with the same scores as a local independent sends 17% of it’s pupils to top universities compared to 66% sent by its neighbour.”

But what do we as a nation do to correct this? Surely bright children from poor backgrounds should be given the same chance as kids from more affluent backgrounds? Can we expect much to change anytime soon? My belief is that increasing tuition fees will only serve to reduce state school applications still further, and that without proactive selection procedures at Oxbridge, nothing is likely to change.


Search engine optimisation

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the visibility of a website in search engines via “natural” or unpaid (“organic”) search results. It’s one of the areas that you need to get right when developing a website, and an area to tweak when you try and improve the rankings of your website, over time.

I came across this infographic, which set out all the factors as a periodic table.

It shows the things you have to get right – all common sense really, and unacceptable behaviour which you will get punished for.

Wish I had seen this back in 2007, would have made things alot clearer.

Raising expectations and aspirations

Jamila Uddin screamed “I played ping pong with Barack Obama! I can’t believe it!”. Ayo Osisami yelled back “He winked at me!”. His visit to the Globe Academy in South London, with David Cameron really went down well.

Apart from an hour out of the school day, what did his visit bring to the kids at Globe Academy? As a kid from, shall we say, a ‘more challenging’ inner-city comprehensive school, I believe that meeting people that have done something and achieved in their lives is really important. Getting a new perspective, seeing that they are really no different from you, helps raise aspirations and set a new outlook on life.

Did it really have that big an impact on these kids, well it’s over to Tanvir Khan who said “It was the highlight of my life”. Those wanting Barak to visit their school, should form an orderly queue.

Wonder what the kids would have said about their views on the visit of David Cameron – maybe these weren’t printable 😉


Mike Baker’s Cancer Blog

Since entering the world of education, I have been following a small number of education journalists, who I rate. Mike Baker is one of these – a TV and radio broadcaster and journalist, who has previously the BBC Education Correspondent.

I was shocked to read that he has been diagnosed with lung cancer today. I guess that it resonates with me, as it was this form of cancer that took my father’s life.

The most natural thing for Mike to start doing is to write a blog about it. I would recommend that you read it.

For me, I was interested to read his plans:

  • to do less work, but not to stop altogether
  • to worry less
  • to have positive thoughts and do more relaxation
  • to sing, smile and laugh
  • to move more slowly, to rush less, and to be more reflective
  • to stop being obsessed with getting things done and ticking items off his ‘to do’ list
  • to eat more slowly
  • to absorb the lovely natural things, which always give him a lift

Sounds like a good outlook for life.

What else would I do, if it were me? I loved the film the Bucket List starring that old dog Jack Nicholson, and as an avid list-maker I could foresee a new list of people and places to see, and new experiences. The problem is, of course, that you might not be strong enough to do it.

Finally, I hope that the Doctors can work their magic, and wish the very best for Mike and his family.


Tips for exam day

To say that exams are stressful is an understatement – the horror can stay with us for the rest of our lives. I calculate that there are over 6.5m GCSE and A level exams taken every year, this adds up to a whole lot of pain.

So you’ve done as much revision as you meaningfully can. What tips can an examiner give you? Well, these are from George Turnbull, the Exam Doctor.

Before the exam:

  • Know when and where your exams are being held.
  • Check your equipment, make sure that it is in good working order, and know what is to be provided by your school.
  • Check you don’t have two exams at the same time. Special arrangements need to be made.
  • Don’t cheat or break any rules. You could be disqualified or even arrested. Mobile phones are a menace and barred from the exam hall. Don’t take one in.
  • Have a leisurely breakfast or lunch and walk to school, if possible. Be there in good time.
  • Avoid friends outside the exam hall. They could confuse you. Keep your thoughts to yourself and concentrate on the exam. That’s why you are there.


In the exam room:

  • Take six deep breaths, ignore everyone else and concentrate solely on what you have to do.
  • Have a glucose sweet, to boost energy to your brain – but don’t crunch.
  • Read the instructions on the exam papers carefully – do the appropriate number of questions from the right sections, and answer compulsory questions.
  • Know how many marks each question carries – don’t spend too long on any one. Use the number of marks on the paper as a guide.
  • Read questions carefully before you write anything. Time is allowed for this. Use that time to choose your questions, and write notes on the question paper to help you remember later.
  • Make sure you answer the question asked.  No marks if you don’t.
  • If you run out of time, more marks can be gained by completing your remaining answers in outline only.  State what you would do and how to do it, by outlining your main arguments in an essay – without writing the essay – and by jotting down formulae in science – stating how you would complete the question – without doing the calculations.


Good advice, I am sure you will agree. After the exam – no post-mortems. Don’t worry about the exam you have just taken – you can’t do anything about it now.  Put the papers in a drawer and look at them again only when your own grandchildren ask to see them. Concentrate instead on the next exam, where you can influence the result.”

Finally, all that is left is to wish you all good luck in your exams.


The secret of exam success

I don’t know about you, learning doesn’t always come easy to me. I recall taking my mock GCSE exams and staring at my revision, wondering why some kids do really well seemingly without trying, whereas for me it was a battle.

There is a great debate about nature versus nurture. Is academic success due to some special chromosome or is to just down to the way you are taught to learn, and the effort you put in.

An article from Matthew Syed has shed some light on the conundrum. He has found that many studies have found that top performers learn no faster than those who reach lower levels of attainment – hour after hour, they improve at almost identical rates. The difference is simply that high achievers practise for more hours. This was a Eureka moment for me, so it’s about the hard yards – structured and regular studying is the secret.

Syed has found further research which has shown that when students seem to possess a particular gift, it is often because they have been given extra tuition at home, by tutors or parents.

This is not to deny that some kids start out better than others – it is merely to suggest that the starting point we have in life is not particularly relevant.

So many kids, develop a mindset that rationalise poor exam results with a feeling that they are somehow not bright enough. This mindset has a way of becoming self-fulfilling, as it leads to a lowering of expectations.

So with so many kids revising for their summer exams, what words of wisdom can we impart? Well, it is as simple as giving plenty of time for revision, covering the subjects as many times as you feel necessary until you feel that you know the answer. If you don’t understand something, then you can visit Tutorhub for some one to one help online, of course.

Good words of advice, I think. Best of luck kids.


Vetting & Barring: The end is nigh

Okay, so maybe not a surprise given the scale and scope of the public sector cuts being planned, that something costing £80m would receive particular attention. But it was with some sadness that read that the Vetting & Barring scheme and the ISA (Independent Safeguarding Authority) would be ‘scaled back’.

Formal confirmation is due in the Freedom Bill, but it seems probable that the ISA is to be merged with the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). So where does this leave parents, as consumers and tutors?

Parents will be disappointed that there will not be a independent website where they can check tutors online, and that noone will be required to be forever vigilant, constantly updating people’s suitability to work with children, when circumstances change. As I see it the problem with CRB checks is that they only reflect the CRB’s information on an individual at a point in time, whereas an ISA check was a much better control as it was similar to a driving license.

As tutors, maybe you are not concerned either way, as the industry is unregulated and there is no requirement per se for private tutors to be CRB checked in any case. The cost of a CRB check is normally met by employers, and you would expect this not to change with the ISA.

What do I think? Well on one hand I was concerned about the whole subjective review process and power seemingly in the hands of a team of bureaucrats. On the other hand, I think that we may have ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’ – does child safety come with a price? Would the ISA have stopped Ian Huntley, if you think like me that it would, then surely we will have got the balance between personal freedom and child safety wrong.

The devil will be in the detail, and maybe the Freedom Bill will keep some of the features of ISA registration, in which case I may feel much more comfortable about it.
Only time will tell.

Online tutoring: what next for Tutorvista?

Pearson’s acquisition of Tutorvista made the news last week. I the light of this, what next for this business and for online tutoring in general.

Online tutoring as received a fair amount of funding in recent years. This is a relatively new market-space, with Tutorvista only 5 years old. Until recently there were six VC funded online tutoring businesses: Tutorvista (who raised $80.8m), Globalscholar ($42m), Grockit ($17.7m), Cramster ($9m), ($13.5m) and Edufire ($1.7m).

In the period Oct ‘10 to Jan ‘11 four of these businesses were subject to trade sales:

  • Tutorvista was acquired by Pearson (business valuation $215m)
  • Global Scholar by the Scantron Corporation ($140m)
  • Cramster by Chegg (value undisclosed)
  • Edufire was also sold to Camelback Education Group (price undisclosed)

Only Grockit and remains unsold.

Assuming that the acquiring businesses wish to grow these businesses, we should expansion particularly in the US. Interestingly, Pearson says that it is more interested in the growing markets. John Makinson, chairman of Pearson India said that the “acquisition underlines Pearson’s commitment to education and skills development in India. The investment in TutorVista gives us control of the world’s largest online tutoring business and, crucially, a solid platform on which to build a leading presence in the Indian private schools sector.”

Integrating small technology based businesses in large corporates puts stresses on the acquired companies. These businesses require further investment and they will be judged shoulder to shoulder with existing and known business units. So whilst there is great scope for expansion, we’ll have to wait and see what actually happens.

In the meantime, Venture Capitalists will be interested in this segment, particularly in traditional markets like the UK. Have I told you about Tutorhub?