Who will lead the ‘early sector deals’ for EdTech and WellTech?

26 January 2017
By Louis Coiffait
Head of Education
Louis Coiffait

Portmanteau words such as brunch, Brexit and Brangelina seem to be a growing feature of modern life, with FinTech (financial technology) singled out as a promising and disruptive sector in the governments’ Industrial Strategy consultation. But what about the potential role of technology in two of the biggest public services –  education and health – and who will take the lead in bringing together all the key players in each? Improving UK education and skills underpins most of the ambitions in the proposed strategy, and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s latest projections of public spending, especially in health and long-term care, are sobering (see chart).

Source: OBR Jan 2017 FSR


If the UK is to be a “nation that stands tall in the world” as Theresa May proposes, then key sectors such as education and health must harness both existing and emerging technologies – such as Big Data, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). Such innovations offer the opportunity to simultaneously improve outcomes, reduce costs and commercialise promising ventures. Neither education nor health currently features in the list of five ‘early sector deals’, although the Government is openly inviting any sector that can “organise behind strong leadership” to step forward.

Whichever organisations or individuals throw their hats into the ring, here are five key considerations that are relevant to both sectors.

1)      Bring the whole sector together from an end-user perspective.

If we consider the needs that people have over the course of their lives, whether that’s about learning or about health and wellbeing, then artificial boundaries – between different public-sector institutions, or between public, private and charitable organisations – make no sense. A lifelong approach is needed, ensuring all the key stakeholders come together to forge a sector deal, regardless of organisational type. Whatever services people use, their experiences (and their data) should be seamless between providers.

The sectors that exceed the sum of their parts will be those showing enlightened collaboration, beyond short-term or narrow self interest. New institutions may be necessary for this task, or the significant bolstering of existing ones. This has to start with political leadership, initially to help convene each sector and unite competing interests, then to drive through long-term changes. In education, lessons can be drawn from the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG) and the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) – neither of which managed to see through the majority of their many promising recommendations for education technology, primarily due to half-hearted support from different Ministers. There is a huge opportunity for stakeholders to come together across both health and social care, to explore how technology can best promote lifelong health and wellbeing (I’ve called this ‘wellness technology’ or just WellTech).

2)      Address opportunities and barriers in each sector systematically.

The potential economic impact of investing in EdTech and WellTech is huge, not only in the short-term by making efficiency savings, creating jobs and commercial successes, but also by reducing long-term spending on public services such as justice, welfare and health. Healthier and better educated citizens are happier, more economically productive, and cost the state less over the course of their lives. Education and health technologies should be priority areas for investment in science, research and innovation, as well as skill development. Both sectors can help inform and implement preventative behaviour change approaches.

Regulatory barriers could be removed to make for a fair and level playing field, allowing for innovative new business models and entrants, and competition between different providers – regardless of who they are. For instance in education why couldn’t more anonymised data, such as on spending, be available (perhaps via application programming interfaces or APIs) for new insights about cost savings, and why shouldn’t there be funding within every group of 30+ schools to incubate promising innovations? In health, standardised information sharing would allow researchers to help improve outcomes, and smaller contracts would encourage more diverse providers to bid.

When it comes to procurement, purchasing is often fragmented and ad hoc despite the size of the sectors. Individual Multi-Academy Trusts, schools, NHS Trusts and GP surgeries all purchase technology in different ways and at different times (as highlighted previously by Reform), instead of taking a strategic, co-ordinated or evaluated approach. Similarly, the £225bn that Government currently spends on outsourcing could be used more strategically in these two sectors – to develop skills and share knowledge.

Workforce culture, engagement and professional development should be understood and prioritised, to help make the most of technologies in both sectors, rather than to avoid them. Successes should be identified, understood and shared – with explicit experimentation and learning. Too often technology is seen as a ‘cost-centre’ led by the IT department, rather than a digital transformation opportunity led by visionary leaders.

3)      Get the skills pipeline right.

This isn’t just about getting enough high quality teachers and medical professionals, though there are challenges with both, especially if restrictions are placed on skilled European workers. It’s also about a strategic, sector-specific focus on relevant technical and digital skills, as well as fostering a more entrepreneurial culture.

The Schools Minister helpfully summarised the current focus on a core of academic knowledge, and how this might combine with a “sensible use of technology” to support enterprise. But there is an urgent need to rapidly increase the uptake of the new computing qualifications, especially among girls and disadvantaged students. That will require pooling teaching across all school types in a local area, a national focus on recruiting suitably qualified teachers, and far more proactive roles for employers – especially from these two sectors.

The renewed commitment to skills is also an opportunity to develop basic skills, digital literacy and technical skills at the same time, with many promising technologies already in this area, as illustrated in a recent Science and Technology Select Committee report.

Sector deals could encourage more focused interdisciplinarity in particular local areas – clustering ‘domain expertise’ in health and education, with the relevant skills in technology and business.

4)      Communicate clearly about data.

Much of the potential of technology relies on smarter use of data. Yet both education and health are littered with examples where promising innovations were stalled by poor communication about data issues. In 2014 the $100m InBloom education data programme was shut down due to privacy concerns. Closer to home and more recently, the NHS care.data programme was also stopped due to data security and consent issues.

Building on the ‘whole lifecycle’ approach and empowering end-users to understand and own their own data, the sector deals offer new opportunities to be both bold and collaborative about how data could be used in education and in health. Lessons can also be learned from other countries, with Estonia’s X-Road project one, impressive, example. Perhaps such approaches, where citizens ‘loan’ their data to different services, could be piloted in individual Multi-Academy or NHS Trusts?

5)      Think about exports from the start.

If post-Brexit Britain is to achieve its potential, it needs to avoid any hints of an isolated island ideology, and instead embrace its longer history as an archipelago of 6,289 isles, facing out and connecting with the whole of the wider world around it. Despite their many flaws, make no mistake that most aspects of our education and health sectors are world leading – and are regarded as such internationally.

When combined with emerging technologies, these strong national brands offer a huge commercial opportunity, and one that should share both the risks and the benefits between both the public and the private sector. Many of Britain’s publicly funded professionals in education and health are already starting to use technologies such as video conferencing and massive open online courses (MOOCs), delivering training to colleagues around the world. Likewise UK-developed applications and services are supporting service delivery globally in both sectors, for instance by saving time, analysing data and informing choices. Perhaps a greater future opportunity lies in consultancy, with British experts advising other Governments, for a reasonable fee of course. Government backing of coherent sector deals in EdTech and WellTech could exponentially increase the global commercial opportunities for both sectors, and also help to fund them sustainably.