Educational publishers warn government body will hurt business

The UK educational publishing industry has warned of “mass sector contraction” as a result of the government’s takeover and expansion of an online learning platform that was launched during the pandemic.

Oak National Academy, a digital learning resource, relaunched this week with up to £ 43mn of government funding to provide free curriculum materials, after being converted into an arms length body to the Department for Education.

The platform was set up by a coalition of education leaders in April 2020 to provide free learning for children when schools closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, this spring the government set out plans to convert Oak National Academy into a new independent body, to level up standards across the education system.

The decision has been resisted by the publishing industry and some of Oak’s own founders, who warned it would destroy the market for paid-for educational resources and create a state monopoly on teaching materials.

Through Oak, ministers aim to deliver teaching materials in every subject for all ages in England and overseas, with the first packages launching in 2024. About 32,000 teachers and 170,000 pupils use the resource each week.

The education department said the body would give teachers and pupils “access to high-quality digital curriculum resources which are free, optional, and adaptable”.

Dan Conway, chief executive of the Publishers Association, an industry body, said the changes represented a “major intervention into the market by the government” that would “without a doubt. . . have a major impact on commercial operations ”.

He added that educational publishers would struggle to compete with the free resources offered on a permanent basis by Oak, resulting in a big hit to sales of digital teaching materials, a market worth £ 40mn.

This could result in companies going out of business, the Publishers Association said, threatening the domestic market for print resources, which was worth £ 158mn last year.

“You can see a snowball effect [where] it gets embedded more and more around the country and you effectively get a one size fits all curriculum. . . and other resources are driven out of the market, ”Conway added. “We are talking about mass sector contraction.”

The British Educational Suppliers Association warned in May it would consider a judicial review of the government’s decision to take over Oak.

Caroline Wright, director-general of Besa, said Oak would “unfairly replicate the resources produced by hundreds of UK businesses, stifle innovation and threaten the commercial viability of one of the country’s fastest growing and most internationally renowned sectors”.

United Learning, an academy trust and one of the founding members of Oak, has pulled its resources from the platform, warning that the government risked creating a monopoly on what schools taught.

Writing in sector publication Schools WeekUnited Learning chief executive Jon Coles said suppliers of resources, such as Pearson and HarperCollins, could be forced to scale back their business if undercut by free resources.

The move could result in Oak dominating the market and “a large proportion of schools. . . following a government-approved lesson-by-lesson curriculum ”.

“Only a totalitarian government would want to control what schools teach,” he added.

But Matt Hood, founder and chief executive of Oak National Academy, said on Wednesday that Oak provided materials teachers needed but struggled to find, and supplemented rather than replaced other resources.

He wrote on Twitter last week that the “biggest chunk” of Oak’s budget would “go directly to schools, publishers or other organizations that create our resources”.

The DfE said: “Oak’s conversion to an arms length body” was an “important step towards better supporting pupils’ learning” through giving schools free high-quality resources.

“We recognize the importance of a competitive commercial market and so it will always be teachers who choose whether or not to use Oak’s or any other provider’s materials,” it said.

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