Trade: Mark Lane meets Tees Business Woman of the Year 2019, Claire Preston, and uncovers the remarkable story and ongoing international expansion plans of Middlesbrough-headquartered literacy development business, Lexonik
It is fairly common knowledge that in the UK, literacy levels are poor – certainly for a first world country and a major international economy. As a journalist this is an issue I actually notice all the time. I regularly receive written documents containing basic grammatical errors by people who really ought to know better – in fact, often by people for whom writing is an important part of their daily work.
Putting this problem into perspective is Claire Preston, CEO of Lexonik (pictured opposite page, right). She explains: “Literacy levels in the UK are inexcusable. England currently ranks 23rd out of 23 OECD nations for teenage literacy and we are the only OECD nation where the literacy of 16-24 year-olds is below that of people aged 55 and over.
“The trend of low literacy in disadvantaged areas is intergenerational, and in some pockets of the UK up to 40 per cent of the adult population lack the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. Not only is this unthinkable – it’s social injustice in extreme. It also reflects appalling management and leadership, as for years, not enough has been done to redress the imbalance of literacy and subsequent achievement and life chances, which ultimately costs the government and the tax payer enormously.”
But what if there was the opportunity to introduce a programme that was proven to raise reading ages by an average of 27 months after only 6 weeks? A programme which comprised a basic set of specific activities and resources which are used to train teachers to deliver in a very prescriptive way – resulting in rapid and dramatic improvements to literacy?
It probably sounds a little too good to be true, and there is certainly no single magic wand that is going to solve the UK’s deep-seated literacy problems. But in Lexonik, we might just have chanced upon the next best thing.
Lexonik – originally known as Sound Training – is the brainchild of Katy Parkinson. It was a concept I had never heard of until I spoke to Claire, but having found out more – including the ringing endorsements it continues to receive from clients around the world – I have to say, I’m a convert.
To understand the background to Lexonik it is worth first finding out a little more about the origins of the business.
The company was established by Katy in 2011. An ex-teacher with a passion for literacy, she spent many years researching and trialing methodologies and activities with the aim of raising literacy levels.
Initially focused on mainstream students within UK schools, the business slowly grew in popularity, with consistent, dramatic results being achieved by a growing team of ‘Sound Trained’ teachers nationally. Research and subsequent development in new sectors and locations followed.
In 2014, the company explored potential business opportunities in the USA, and a pilot programme commenced in San Francisco.
“The response from students and teachers there was great and data gained led to further pilots in the US in Maine, Florida and most recently Texas,” says Claire. “In addition to research into the US market, plans were drawn up to penetrate the international schools sector, which started with a school partnership in Dubai. This has now developed into further presence within the UAE as well as Qatar, with partnership contracts also imminent in Saudi Arabia.”
The business now also works within the adult training sector, not least within the criminal justice system, with education staff being trained in five prisons to deliver Lexonik, a name which was developed in 2017 following a rebrand.
So what is Lexonik? Lexonik is a teaching programme, the impact of which lies in the combination of challenge, engagement, instruction and content. It has been proven to raise reading ages by an average of 27 months after only six weeks. It is based on six, one-hour lessons delivered to learners of all ages and ability, resulting in not only a huge boost to understanding of the English language, but increased levels of confidence, academic attainment and improved employability and life chances.
Says Claire: “There really is nothing like it on the market which makes such a notable difference in such a short time and one of the wonderful things about it is that it gives teachers as much pleasure to deliver it, as it gives students the joy of participating and the increased knowledge which prevails.
“Katy has created a way for teachers to improve their own knowledge and ability to support literacy development for learners of all ages. Now we ‘just’ need to make sure that Lexonik instruction becomes part of all teacher training and student learning, reducing the achievement gap and improving lives. Along with SSAT, we are about to launch a national literacy campaign to eradicate preventable illiteracy and want to work with school leaders and a range of organisations collectively to make a difference, starting here in the North East.”
What is most striking about Claire, Katy and the rest of the team at Lexonik is the scale of ambition within the business. There is a sense of a business which knows it is onto something special and is determined to spread the word far and wide.
The company currently employs 25 people, as well as a team of 50 teachers who respond to school demand across England alone.
Growth plans – at home and abroad – are hugely ambitious. The company is already delivering content in the USA, Qatar, Oman, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and soon to be Africa and Asia.
On this front it has had huge support from the North East England Chamber of Commerce and other local agencies. Says Claire: “Our local international trade adviser has been amazing throughout our Lexonik journey and the support we’ve had from the Department of International Trade has generally has been great. We were recently delighted to be acknowledged
as Northern Powerhouse Export Champions along with other fantastic businesses in the region. As we anticipate export being a huge part of our growth, this is particularly significant and will certainly help to promote our work in new markets.”
Export, as indicated, is integral to growth plans and, on this front, the sky really is the limit. Claire continues: “We have very ambitious plans to reach as many countries as possible, partly through international partner organisations and partly through the development of a digital version of Lexonik.
“In addition to the establishment of Lexonik Centres of Excellence around the world which will act at regional hubs for Lexonik teacher training, we are currently developing an intelligent platform, in partnership with Teesside University, which will enable access to our teaching from anywhere on earth.”
More generally, Claire adds: “Our mission is to improve literacy levels globally and the way we intend to achieve that is by reaching as many learners as possible through Lexonik teaching. Whether Lexonik is delivered by our own team of international teachers and trainers, Lexonik instructors in schools and training settings internationally, or via Lexonik Digital remains to be seen. I’m confident that with the right team and support from influential professionals and organsiations also wanting to make a real difference, we will get there.”
In many ways, the challenge for Claire and her colleagues has moved on from being successful and achieving goals to managing that growth sensibly and not over-reaching. That means taking up the right opportunities and employing the right people.
Answering, Claire tells us: “Whilst it would be easy to say that working in the Middle East has been culturally challenging, this has not yet proved to be the case, as we have mainly worked within international and British schools in these countries.
“Interestingly, we probably underestimated the extent of localisation which has been required in the USA, as well as the cultural differences there, but we’re learning. Ultimately we want learners from any country using the English language to experience the benefits of Lexonik teaching, so are keen to make sure that we carry out necessary research and adaption to expediate and guarantee success.”
I end the interview with Claire by going back to the issue of education and literacy in the UK. Like any successful business, Claire and her colleagues are passionate about what they do, with any success and financial renumeration achieved very much a welcome side product of that.
As such, all have clear and forthright views on literacy and learning in the UK and all wholeheartedly believe things could be better. Asked if the education system in the UK is too politicised, Claire replies: “Unfortunately yes. In the UK we expect Secretaries of State for Education to make an impact on the education system in their time in office. Unfortunately, the SoS time in office is often barely more than 12 months.
“Consequently, we have a constant stream of educational reform; often uncoordinated which schools, teachers and head teachers have to respond to and implement. This leads to initiative overload in schools and very often short-term and superficial change before we move onto the next SoS.”
So what kind of educational reform would she like to see introduced in the UK? Here, again, Claire offers some eminently sensible food for thought to this critical UK debate.
She says: “Obviously my soap box address would be the need to improve literacy levels, through quality teacher training but actually, there is a major, associated issue within the profession – teachers teach too much.
“There is a national and international crisis in teacher supply. Workload is a key issue for many teachers who are either moving abroad to teach or leaving the profession all together. The key issue I see as I visit schools in the UK and internationally is that teachers teach too much.
“Their heavy teaching timetables are the driver for the amount of assessment, planning and preparation that they are required to do.
“I would like all teachers to be given a minimum of 20 per cent planning, preparation and assessment time. This has significant cost implications for the education budget but the alarming
and unprecedented exodus of teachers from our schools also comes with the huge financial costs of, for example, training and recruitment.”
She concludes: “Reducing teaching loads significantly will help recruitment, retention, well-being and most importantly improve the quality of teaching in all our schools.”
Even to somebody who has a limited knowledge of the current debate around teaching in UK schools, reducing teaching loads to ensure we keep our brightest talent in this invaluable profession sounds like a great idea. Accordingly, don’t expect to see it suggested by the Education Secretary any time soon.