Our work in education

www.nesta.org.uk/education/our-work-education/
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TutorFair - Click, Connect Learn - image by Beth Crockatt

A student works with TutorFair, one of the organisations supported through the Click, Connect, Learn programme. Photo by Beth Crockatt

Our education and skills system hasn’t fully adapted to the demands of the 21st century. With unequal opportunities, ineffective use of technology and a narrow focus on exams, today’s system is struggling to prepare young and adult learners to thrive in the future.

At Nesta, we’ve been working in the education, skills and labour market sector since 1998. Our vision during that time was for a world where education helps all learners to make the most of the opportunities our fast-changing future will present.

Our focus

Between 2017 and 2020 we were committed to:

  • A broader education
    Learners need opportunities to hone their social skills, creativity, technical expertise and emotional resilience if they’re going to thrive in life and work.
  • A smarter education
    We believe technology and data have huge potential to make education smarter for learners at all ages and stages.
  • A fairer education
    We want education to give a more diverse range of people access to rewarding careers and positions of power. Not only is this fair, but it benefits everyone.

Nesta's story in education

Prior to 2017, Nesta’s education strategy was focused on young people but we’ve since broadened our horizons to look at adult learners too. Our current education strategy was launched in early 2019, and is driven by our beliefs that the UK’s education system is narrowly focused on exam results, that women and people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not getting the same opportunities to work in tech, and that the education system is not making the most of technology and data.

500,000

students reached through six of our funds and programmes.

1,000

at-risk workers trained through the FutureFit programme.

4

of our research reports directly impacted government policy.

A broader education

To broaden the idea of what education means, we launched the Future Ready Fund in 2018, which helps organisations working with young people to build social skills and emotional resilience. This £500,000 fund supports high-potential, early-stage interventions that promote wider skills in young people aged 11 to 18, focusing on social and emotional skills and resilience.

In 2016/17, we conducted a series of Maths Mission pilots aiming to find innovative ways to improve problem-solving and maths skills. Then in 2018 we started Open Jobs - a project focused on helping individuals, organisations and governments take more informed labour market decisions by carrying out data-driven research, place-based experimentation and advocating for smarter labour market policies.

In 2019 we started FutureFit, a major training and research project led by Nesta and supported by Google.org, focused on creating an effective adult learning system to help tackle inequality and social exclusion. FutureFit is taking place in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, in partnership with 43 organisations including some of Europe’s largest unions, universities, employers and training providers. The programme has upskilled over 1,000 workers across nine sectors to date, and includes a large evaluation of what works so that solutions can be scaled. As a part of this work, we published a series of reports, including Becoming FutureFit, Education for All, Make it FutureFit, and Partnerships for Skills. Learnings from the programme have also informed work about the UK’s green transition, published in a report, Going Green: Preparing the UK workforce for the transition to a net-zero economy.

Nesta has played a huge role in shaping government edtech strategy - we sit on the government advisory edtech leadership group, and because of our expertise, our influence, and our network, we’re now working on COVID-19 response, the National Tuition Programme and open schools.

Joysy John, Director of Education, Nesta

Through our investment arm, Nesta Impact Investments, we support life-changing innovations that help tackle the major challenges faced by older people, children and communities in the UK. Examples of organisations related to education, work and skills that we’ve supported include GetMyFirstJob, Profinda and BeApplied. In addition, we remain the most active early-stage investor in UK edtech, helping to transform the landscape of digital platforms supporting teachers and learners like Sumdog, Third Space Learning, Empiribox, Cogbooks, BibliU and Arbor Education.

Key reports that we’ve published on broadening education and training include The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030 (2017), which examines the impact of automation, ageing populations, globalisation, urbanisation and the rise of the green economy in the workplace, Solved! Making the Case for Collaborative Problem Solving (2017), which proposed the introduction of collaborative problem solving in the classroom to prepare people for life and work, and Transferable Skills in the Workplace (2019), a report for the City of London Corporation outlining key findings from a survey of UK employers.

A smarter education

To improve the use of technology and data in the education sector we launched the Click Connect Learn fund in 2016, which supports technological innovations for volunteers tutoring disadvantaged pupils.

In 2019 we launched the £5.75 million CareerTech Challenge in partnership with the Department for Education. Its goal was to stimulate new opportunities for precarious workers (those in low paid, insecure work, susceptible to change) to improve their skills, retrain online, or access accurate, data-driven, information and advice that helps them to find work.

We also launched the EdTech Innovation Fund and Testbed in 2019 - a £4.6 million partnership which supports more effective use of technology in education. The programme aims to stimulate industry innovation, support the improvement of edtech products, and build an evidence base to ensure that technology meets the needs of teachers, lecturers, pupils and students. In 2019 we also published Educ-AI-tion Rebooted: a report examining the potential of AI to support learners, teachers and the education system.

In 2020, we worked with a group of charities, including the Education Endowment Foundation, on the National Tutoring Programme, providing catch-up support to primary and secondary school pupils who have missed out on learning during school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A fairer education

We launched the Inclusive Economy Partnership in 2017, which brought together businesses, civil society and government to solve some of society’s toughest challenges, including developing tools to improve young people’s access to the job market. Led by Nesta, the Partnership was supported by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

In our 2018 report, Opportunity Lost, we found that exposure to innovation in childhood can shape the inventive potential of a population, and transform the prospects of the economy. However, less than two per cent of children in the UK have exposure to innovation activities and there is little evidence for how to improve this effectively. It’s clear to us that there is a gap in provision. In particular, we were struck by how few women are working in tech, and even fewer in artificial intelligence (AI).

Women in AI

To pursue this subject further, in 2019 we published interviews with 12 key female leaders in AI to find out what inspired them, what barriers they face, and what recommendations they have for how to change the status quo. This piece of work was featured in the Telegraph. Alongside this project, we also released Gender Diversity in AI Research, a report documenting the serious diversity crisis in a larger and more comprehensive corpus than has been used to study this important issue before.

We worked tirelessly to push this issue up the policy agenda, presenting our findings at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Diversity and Inclusion in STEM and to 2,800 people at the United Nations AI for Good Summit.

Finally, in September 2020 Nesta launched the Rapid Recovery Challenge, a £2.8 million challenge prize which will find and support tools and services that improve access to jobs and money for people across the UK, focusing on those hardest hit by the economic shock resulting from COVID-19.

Case study: Future Ready Fund

In response to the findings of our 2017 Future of Skills report, we launched the £500,000 Future Ready Fund in October 2018. In February 2019 we announced the 10 grantees we will be supporting to build social and emotional skills in secondary age students, through initiatives like online tutoring platforms, arts therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Initially the fund was for £250,000, but with over 300 applications and a clear need for evidence in the sector, we doubled it.

Case study: Strengthening the edtech evidence base

After we published our EdTech Testbeds report in 2019, we used the learnings to design and launch the first edtech testbed for England, which 333 schools and colleges applied to participate in. This project was paused, unfortunately, due to COVID-19, so we pivoted the funding to support edtech organisations helping the most disadvantaged students to catch up with learning during school closures instead. Through this partnership, we are also supporting online tutoring providers as part of the National Tutoring Programme and have launched the Edtech R&D programme in response to the pandemic.

Our impact

Too many students leave school and university unprepared for a job market that is changing rapidly. To address this, we worked with the government to add computer science into the curriculum, funded thousands of coding clubs for children to join, and worked with a coalition of 80 companies and the BBC to make free tools and courses for digital creativity available online.

We led the Inclusive Economy Partnership Accelerator, supported by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Through partnerships between business, civil society and government, the accelerator supported seven organisations that help young people transition from education, unemployment or inactivity into paid work. In six months the accelerator supported over 50,000 people.

Our £4.6 million EdTech Innovation Fund has supported 15 education technology organisations to help schools and colleagues make more effective use of technology, including formative assessment, essay marking, parental engagement and timetabling.

More than 330 schools and colleges across the UK applied to participate in the EdTech Innovation Testbed, which allows institutions to trial promising technology products suited to their needs for free, and help build the evidence base for what works. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the programme of school trials had to be cancelled. Instead, a new R&D programme was launched to help support the most disadvantaged students to catch up with their learning, and we will also be supporting online tutoring providers to grow their work as part of the National Tutoring Programme. Nesta continues to share good practice in understanding what works in edtech.

Case study: Skills taxonomy

In August 2018 we published the first publicly-available, data-driven, skills taxonomy for the UK workforce. The accompanying interactive data visualisation was shortlisted in the Kantar Information is Beautiful awards. Since then, Google has used the taxonomy in its platform course finder and the Economic and Social Research Council is funding the development of indices of regional skills mismatch based on it.

Case study: FutureFit

With the labour market changing rapidly as technology impacts workers, building a strong evidence base for adult learning is essential. Supported by Google.org, we explored what an effective adult learning system, which helps tackle inequality and social exclusion, might look like. The FutureFit programme has trained more than 1,000 at-risk workers to date, and established partnerships with 43 organisations, working across nine sectors in five different countries.

We reached more than 500,000 students with our Future Ready Fund, Rocket Fund, Click Connect Learn, Maths Mission, Edtech Innovation Programme, and Longitude Explorer Prize. Meanwhile, our FutureFit programme trained more than 1,000 at-risk workers, and established partnerships with 43 organisations in 5 different countries.

Four of our research reports - Women in AI, AI in Education, Transferable Skills in the Workplace, and EdTech Testbeds: Models for Improving Evidence impacted directly on government policy. Ten reports on adult learning and skills policy were published and networks of over 450 senior policymakers and experts were supported. We also partnered with the Department for Education on five innovation programmes - the EdTech Innovation Fund, the EdTech Innovation Testbed, the CareerTech Challenge, and the National Tutoring Programme. Finally, Nesta was named in the recommendations of the Durham Commission by Arts Council England on digital skills and creativity.

Companies which we have invested in, and continue to work with, deliver frontline impact every day—often to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. GetMyFirstJob helps thousands of young people make the transition from education to work every month (circa 6,000 new registrations each month). Arbor Education helps reduce teacher workload and improve governance in over 1,000 schools in the UK. Sumdog has supported kids in around a quarter of all UK primary schools to build a love of maths, and Third Space Learning supports around 7,000 children every week with its online maths tutoring support.

Making Sense of Skills: A UK skills taxonomy

Explore our interactive resource to find out which skills are most in demand for different job titles.

Making sense of skills

What we learned

A bold vision for scale and impact within education is not enough to overcome systemic barriers that prevent people accessing the resources they need to reach their full potential. We must work actively to address these barriers, and addressing disadvantage must be central to what we do - not just an add-on. 

For example, a key learning from our Click Connect Learn project was that providers of online tuition must start with the intended outcomes and experience for young people, not the technology. An engaging, high-quality experience that works for young people is a key factor in making a difference to their outcomes.

Allowing innovation to bubble up from below is substantially more effective than imposing it from above. Change must be driven by experts, and that expertise is most commonly found at the grassroots where the work is being done. Additionally, we’ve found that catering to the needs of the disadvantaged, excluded and marginalised delivers substantial benefits to the wider population too.

Finally, we’ve learnt that collaboration is enormously important. The National Tutoring Programme, which we co-founded with a coalition of charities, could not have been established without a collection of like-minded partners collaborating around a common purpose - helping the most disadvantaged kids to catch up on learning. Working together with other funders and governments can make change happen on a scale unimaginable for a single organisation.

My biggest hope is that equality is core to how we reimagine education. We need to put people who are excluded, marginalised and disadvantaged by the system at the heart of our work, because otherwise they simply don't have a voice.

Joysy John, Director of Education, Nesta

The future

The COVID-19 crisis has given policymakers and school/college leaders an opportunity to reform our education system. Government, businesses, schools, colleges and civil society are coming together to build back better. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to close the gap and address issues that prevent learners from reaching their true potential.

The sector is more aware of the need for holistic education beyond the focus on academics, especially creativity, social and emotional skills. Schools and colleges will be the centre of the community and help the most disadvantaged and disengaged, as well as those hardest hit by the economic impacts of the pandemic. Simultaneously, innovative new technologies can help us personalise learning for disengaged students and give them access to one-to-one or group tuition, tailored to their needs. The National Tutoring Programme is a step in the right direction to help the most disadvantaged students catch up with learning.

Edtech adoption has been accelerated due to the pandemic. Now more than ever, the latest behavioural and data science techniques are needed to improve how technology meets the needs of learners, teachers and parents. New solutions and ‘Open Schools’ will emerge that improve the learner experience and support teachers to draw better insights and provide feedback.

As a result of technological progress and demographic changes, more than six million people in the UK are currently employed in occupations that are likely to change radically or disappear entirely by 2030. Our work shows the skills people will need in the coming years as jobs change, and we’re supporting new, tech-based training and careers solutions for people who want to reskill. To facilitate this, we need open data on jobs and skills, learning that fits individual needs and circumstances, a broader range of skills, and better quality local jobs and services.

Ultimately, we envision an education system and labour market where information about skills and careers is open and empowering, where technology is harnessed to reduce, not increase, inequalities in access to jobs, and where policies give everyone the power to overcome systemic barriers that stop them participating in good-quality, meaningful work.