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Education Technology: Oak National Academy

Volume 825: debated on Monday 7 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of funding for Oak National Academy on the education technology market in England.

My Lords, as an integral part of the process to set up Oak National Academy as an arm’s-length body, the department produced a business case which passed internal government clearances. It included an assessment of the potential market impact and was published by the Government on 1 November of this year. Monitoring market impact will be a priority throughout Oak National Academy’s lifetime and will be factored into its ongoing evaluation and two-year review.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of Members’ interests, in particular my work with ScaleUp Capital and Perlego. Fifteen years ago, the BBC decided to provide free education material to schools but, quite rightly, the BBC’s regulator, the BBC Trust, closed it down as an unacceptable market intervention. Given that the creation of the Oak National Academy is opposed by publishers, multi-academy trusts, the educational technology sector and even the teaching unions, can my noble friend tell me why the Government have decided to nationalise the education technology and publishing sector? Can she tell me why they have decided to spend £45 million on a quango employing 80 people that nobody wants? In short, can she explain why the Government want to be the BBC?

It is tempting to try to answer the last part of my noble friend’s question but I will resist. I would like to set the record straight. My noble friend suggests that nobody supports Oak National Academy and that MATs were resistant to it. That is not an accurate representation of the facts. There are two big reasons why we think this is important. First, we know that our teachers spend a lot of time preparing curriculum, and we want to reduce their workload and the burden that they face to allow them to focus on their pupils. Secondly, we are clear that the quality of the curriculum can still be further improved, and Oak is one simple way of doing that.

My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my interests in the register, particularly as a member of the board at Century Tech. The Government are splurging £43 million on Oak, which is used by only just over 5% of England’s teachers but which allows Ministers, in the words of Jon Coles, the chief executive of one of the largest MATs, to promote their own preferred curriculum model. I now regularly hear from private equity investors that they are put off investing in education resources in this country because of the distortion caused by the Government clumsily entering the market at scale. Please can the noble Baroness tell the House what competitor analysis the department has undergone and why it thinks this significant investment will aid growth and choice for teachers?

I have to say it sticks in my throat to have private equity investors who are responsible for considerable distortions in the children’s home market lecturing the Government on distortions in the edtech market. More importantly, the Government are not distorting the curriculum. The Government are striving—I know that the noble Lord knows that this is true—to have the best curriculum for children. We know that teachers will make the best judgment on what curriculum their students need. That is why, apart from the curriculum from Oak’s own partners, which will be on the platform, it will also showcase more than 80 other curriculum models for providers so that teachers can make those comparisons.

My Lords, however good the materials from the Oak Academy may be, I was very pleased to hear what the Minister said about other materials. I would like her to reassure the House that there is no intention, and never will be, that Oak Academy materials will become mandatory in schools, or even be perceived as required on the basis of support for those materials from Ofsted, to the exclusion of other curriculum materials and pedagogical style.

I am delighted to be able to reassure the noble Baroness that Oak will never be mandated; it is an optional resource for teachers.

My Lords, I remind the House of my registered interests. Will the Government assure us that if we are using this to support teachers, it will be an example of the style of help that can be used in areas such as better education around special educational needs? If so, when will we get an idea of how this will fit in—possibly through the reaction to the review, for which we are all waiting?

The procurement of materials for key stages 1 to 4 is largely discrete from the review. Oak will be providing resources only for key stages 1 to 4, and only digital resources. That procurement has just gone out, and we will wait to see what is delivered as a result.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the honorary president of BESA, the British Educational Suppliers Association, whose members have grave concerns about the Oak proposals, and who are mainly highly motivated and innovative small and medium-sized enterprises. Has my noble friend had time to read today's Times Educational Supplement, which points out that four out of 10 of all lessons on Oak started by pupils are not finished, with the worst take-up in disadvantaged areas? Can she comment on that? Could not the funding allocated to Oak be better spent working with tools on solutions that they know work best for their pupils?

I will look at the numbers to which my noble friend refers. I wonder whether she is referring to lessons delivered by Oak during the pandemic, when they were online and children were working from home. Obviously, the resources that the department is funding Oak to develop in future will be for teachers to deliver in the classroom—although it also provides a back-up and support in the event, God forbid, of another pandemic.

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness and her mention of the Times Educational Supplement article, the analysis also shows no clear trend between Oak usage and a school’s Ofsted rating in schools overall. Therefore, why is this investment being made if it is not improving Ofsted ratings and school performance?

These are very early days; this is strategic investment for the next many years. I challenge the House to think of the questions it would be posing to the department if we were not investing in digital resources for children.

My Lords, first, I welcome and associate myself with the Minister’s comments about private children’s homes.

It has been reported that Oak National Academy is considering allowing private companies to sell its lessons on for profit. I remember that, when it was first set up, it was envisaged that no individual would be able to profit from the activities of the new body. However, now facing legal challenge, the Department for Education has add to row back on geoblocking Oak outside the UK and make users aware that alternatives are available. Can the Minister update the House on this ongoing legal challenge and her department’s progress towards establishing the promised “thriving commercial market” for Oak National Academy?

In relation to geoblocking, Oak will not be internationalising its content; materials will be geoblocked. The noble Baroness is right that the department has received a challenge from BESA and the Publishers Association. We have responded to their recent concerns about the future operations of the ALB and we are looking at all the different models of licensing going forward. I am happy to update the noble Baroness in due course when those are decided.

Is my noble friend aware of the results of a recent report that found that, notwithstanding the concerns raised by noble Lords, the Oak Academy had a positive impact on the workload of teachers using its resources, saving nearly half of them three hours a week, the equivalent of three weeks during a school year? Will my noble friend and her fellow Ministers continue to champion a range of ways to improve educational access and resources for schools, because this immeasurably helps reduce the burden of our hardworking teachers?

I agree entirely with my noble friend. She is absolutely right that almost half of teachers who used Oak reduced their workload by three hours a week. She is also right, and I reiterate, that we trust teachers and that the department supports them to have a choice of materials that they use.