Start-up brings new school of thought to Australian education

New ideas are leading to pragmatic school reforms, says Ben Jensen

Education expert Ben Jensen’s start-up is a unique global hybrid – and one that many people in the field are still coming to grips with.

The market for education policy is not normally associated with groundbreaking start-ups. Yet consider how important it is: the mathematical ability of an Australian 15-year-old is two years behind their counterpart in Shanghai; Australian primary schoolchildren have the lowest rates of literacy in the English-speaking world; Australian students performed better 15 years ago than they do today.

This is the assessment of Ben Jensen, an education policy and research expert who formed Learning First in 2014 to help arrest what he sees as a clear decline in standards. 

Jensen launched the company as a three-pronged enterprise: it is a pure research firm; a consultancy offering policy ideas to government; and a provider of development and training to policymakers and education leaders. Add to this its work that is part not-for-profit and part business and you have an educational hybrid that is unique in the sector.

“New ideas are actually leading to pragmatic reforms in schools,” says Jensen.

“Governments have not always been listening, but at the moment they certainly are.”

Related: Are Australian schools making the grade?

The company offers its research free to schools, but aims to make a profit on its consulting for governments and its training and development work. Jensen says the model works overseas but is new to Australia, adding that the confusion over its status has caused plenty of headaches.

“People are always surprised we’re not a not-for-profit,” says Jensen.

“The notions of social impact investment and social enterprise are immature here. People in the education sector … sometimes don’t know how to deal with us, and others simply don’t want to. Foundations, too, can be highly sceptical.”

The company’s viability relies heavily on its research capability. Jensen’s background working on global educational policy at the OECD in Paris and at the Grattan Institute in Melbourne has given him a collection of contacts most educators would envy.

The research arm is supported by international charitable bodies and philanthropic outfits, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Center on Education and the Economy, based in Washington DC.

Without the global research feeding into the company’s development and consulting arms, Learning First would be unremarkable, he says. “We would just be yet another consulting firm.”

The firm enjoys unique reach but Jensen admits that it is handicapped by the distance between the company and its funding sources.

“The funds for our research are 20 hours away by plane. We would have a much better financial business model if we were an American company,” he says.

Jensen is aware of possible conflicts of interest in the company’s approach. Research that the firm disseminates may be critical of governments and yet governments are its main clients.

“We’re not here to take cheap shots, but be consistent in our criticism and judgements of governments and their policies,” he says.

He remains optimistic about the business and for overall improvement in school standards and teacher development. Most state governments are receptive to change and consequently both the consulting and development arms of the business are growing.

One piece of advice

"It's important to employ the right people. We could open our doors because of my reputation, but we could only keep them open because of our most valuable asset – our people."

This article is from the December issue of INTHEBLACK


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