The NEN Interview - Ernest Jenavs, CEO Edurio
Inspired by reviewing ugly Excel spreadsheets of student feedback for his university dissertation, Ernest Jenavs set out to transform how schools gather and use survey data. He co-founded Edurio in 2014 and they now work with over 2,000 schools in England and Latvia. Their suite of online survey, data analytics and reporting tools help schools use stakeholder feedback to improve the quality of education they provide.
I caught up with Ernest last week for today’s Nordic EdTech News interview. It was fascinating to learn not only about their rapid recent growth and how they’ve scaled internationally, but also to better understand the Latvian school system and the growing local EdTech network.
As usual, the transcript of our conversation (edited to bring you all of the very best bits) follows below.
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Many thanks, Jonathan
Jonathan Viner (JV): Hi Ernest! Thanks very much for talking to me today. Can you begin by explaining what Edurio is and does?
Ernest Jenavs (EJ): Edurio stems from the idea that there is a lot more to a good education than just good grades. We know that many schools’ improvement journeys are driven by what is easy to measure (i.e academic outcomes) rather than by what is important. So we've looked to change how stakeholder feedback is done in schools to provide insights on vital, but hard to measure issues like parental engagement, equality, diversity and inclusion as well as staff wellbeing.
Essentially we develop survey tools that help schools discover key data and information. We take away the hassle for school leaders to use and analyse that data and to present it in a way that helps them build better schools for their people.
JV: What do you mean by the phrase “better schools”?
EJ: In my opinion, all elements of a good education or better schools are intrinsically linked. If you improve staff wellbeing, you improve staff retention and cohesion, which improves learning outcomes as well.
Linked to this, we see the University of Chicago’s 5Essentials System as a useful framework to identify the most important organisational conditions that improve student outcomes. These are effective leadership, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment and ambitious instruction.
We help schools identify their progress against key data points and give them the evidence they need to plan their improvement work.
JV: Can you give me an idea of the business’s scale and current turnover?
EJ: We closed our financial year in July and, despite Covid, we have doubled our revenues and school customers this year. We’re now working with about 2,000 schools, of which 1,500 are in the UK, and are forecasting that we’ll reach €1 million in annual revenue this December.
JV: Congratulations! Can you tell me a little more about the schools that you’re working with in Latvia and in the UK?
EJ: In the UK, or more specifically in England, our work is mostly with Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), which are groups of schools managed in a public / private partnership model. In Latvia, we typically collaborate with the local municipalities.
In both cases, we get the school groups to develop / use a standardised survey framework. We then enable them to visualise and benchmark the data at both the individual school and group level.
JV: Is that benchmarking just within the school group or can you also offer customers a comparison with other schools nationally?
EJ: Yes absolutely. Our research team develops these powerful surveying instruments with academic institutions and practitioners - these run first with our customers and we then launch them nationally through our networks. For example, we developed a survey with the Academies Enterprise Trust looking at equality, diversity and inclusion among their school staff. We then ran the survey nationally and generated 16,000 responses from teachers, which provided really powerful benchmark data.
Our research team then creates a detailed anonymised report on the topic that we then distribute for free to the whole UK schools sector. It’s important for us to give back to schools and share our learning from the surveys.
JV: And how do stakeholders participate in these surveys?
EJ: Well, the first point to note is that the schools are our customers, so it’s in their interest to get everyone to complete it. As a result, we usually see response rates of between 60% and 80% with our staff surveys.
How they participate is usually decided by the customer. In some cases, we send the surveys out as a link in an email or the school can share them directly via their learning management system or messaging apps. We've also done campaigns using SMS messages and QR codes. Ultimately, the school is in control of which parents, pupils or staff members participate and at which point.
JV: You mentioned that most of your customers were from MATs in England and municipalities in Latvia, do you work with individual schools as well?
EJ: We do sometimes and they frequently reach out to us. Our pricing model is set to ensure that the state sector can afford to work with us - we don’t want to be only accessible to private schools, who tend to have higher budgets and more resources.
Having said that, our work is most effective where we’re able to build meaningful benchmark data. This usually comes when we work with a school group and have the time and resources to build it. Groups also benefit more from the aligned language and benchmarked results we then generate.
JV: That being said England is a difficult market to crack whether you’re selling to MATs or individual schools. How have you been able to do it?
EJ: Well, the first thing I’d say is that education is not an easy market anywhere, especially if you’re selling to schools rather than individuals. In England it’s particularly hard - schools are constrained by budgets and by regulation. It's also very difficult to stand out as it's a massive decentralised market with lots of EdTech players. As a result headteachers are receiving 50 to 100 emails a day from various services trying to sell them EdTech solutions.
We deliberately focused on MATs from the start and secured a pilot project with United Learning, the largest school group in England. They started using us to do all their stakeholder feedback, which was a massive vote of confidence. From there, we’re now in three of the five largest MATs in England and over a hundred other MATs.
We’re committed to leading the market in delivering great customer service, particularly if things go wrong. We also invest heavily in thought leadership - we publish freely available research on a regular basis and share that through events, podcasts etc. It’s all about adding value and not trying to do the hard sell.
As a result, our customer numbers in England have snowballed. We had our first customer in 2016/17, then in 2018 we got to 300 schools and since then, the numbers have doubled every year.
JV: What is the process when you’re selling to a Latvian municipality?
EJ: The average municipality will probably only have a couple of people working specifically in education. They may be an ex-headteacher, who could also be a city councillor. Although they pay for the service, there’s very limited guidance given to the schools.
In Latvia the schools are our users. They access a library of pre-prepared surveys and choose what to run and when. The municipality might see a summary of the results but the primary users are individual schools.
JV: At the national scale Edurio worked with the Latvian Ministry of Education to survey all schools during Covid. How did that project come about?
EJ: When Covid hit we saw the massive challenges that schools were experiencing in Latvia and looked to see where we could help. We already had a collaboration with the national education quality service and it was clear that they were struggling to communicate with pupils, parents and teachers. We ran some pro-bono surveys to help them navigate their way through the crisis - our insights informed a change to public examinations and highlighted the key technology problems that needed to be solved. A third of Latvian teachers actually participated in the staff survey, which was identified by the OECD as an example of good practise.
Two other really important findings emerged. Schools that were open and honest with parents about what they knew and what they didn’t know scored best for parent engagement. And also that teachers were really looking for emotional and mental support, rather than practical support like lesson plans.
JV: Can you give me a quick overview of the Latvian schools landscape and of their EdTech usage?
EJ: Latvia is a very small country - we currently have 672 schools across primary and secondary education that teach a total of 219k pupils. In addition, there are 643 preschools with 100k children attending.
A lot of Latvian schools are trying to be really progressive in their use of EdTech, but the system is uneven and it really depends on the school leadership. Obviously schools have had to use digital tools during Covid - my younger sister has spent almost 18 months learning remotely!
It’s also worth noting that there is a major curriculum reform project currently ongoing in schools. This is driving towards a competency-based education, which also puts a greater emphasis on digital tools. Those tools do need to be in Latvian to be widely adopted - the level of English is high in the general population but it’s not universal for all teachers and all schools.
JV: You’ve had significant success scaling Edurio outside of Latvia. What advice would you give other founders on how to approach that?
EJ: Edurio is in the majority of Latvian schools and we have a small but profitable business here. But in order to grow to the scale we need to justify the investment in the platform we’re building, expanding internationally was essential for us.
It has therefore been interesting to start a business in a country that was never going to be the major market for it. In fact, I would recommend that any startup in the Baltics and Nordics should think of their home market as a secondary market - startups from this region need to be born global to really succeed.
To that end, it’s important to test and validate your proposition internationally. That was painful for us to realise as we needed to do lots of hacks and work-arounds to make the product fit in different international markets.
JV: What other Latvian EdTech businesses should readers of this interview be looking out for?
EJ: When we launched in 2014, Edurio was the only international EdTech startup in Latvia. but over time a few other good examples have grown. The most significant ones to mention are:
JV: What's the biggest challenge facing Edurio in the next three to five years?
EJ: Currently we're a very mature business in Latvia and although we’re rapidly growing in England we will have saturated that market in the next five years. So the big challenge is how do we make the next big leap forward.
When you've got a sales led model in education, as we do, there's always a big chasm between any market and the next market due to differences in the education systems. We’re constantly looking at whether we should start focusing on delivering a portfolio-led proposition for our customers or should we look at scaling more horizontally and more widely?
JV: And finally, what are you most proud of?
EJ: I think that everything we do is about helping school leaders to improve their school. So I always feel really proud when I hear a school leader say: “We are changing our school - we’re now leading the school in a completely different way and are putting the views of parents, pupils and staff at the centre.”
Despite all the challenges, it’s great that we’ve built something that school leaders see real value in and which supports them to make important decisions that transform their schools. That's when I feel really proud!
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