We are delighted to announce the conversion of our investment in Smart School Councils.
Smart School Councils is one of 16 investments made by the Young Academy Investment Fund. The fund was established to reduce educational inequality through making social impact-led investments in early stage education ventures. Smart School Councils offers an online tool and comprehensive service to support schools to develop school councils that engage the hardest to reach students and bring the school community together to make democratic decisions about issues affecting the students.
The Young Academy Investment Fund has piloted an innovative approach to financing social enterprises and charities – initially the investment takes the form of a Convertible Loan Note, which accrues interest but doesn’t seek any repayments. This helps early stage ventures who might otherwise struggle with cash availability as they establish themselves and develop their product. Following two years of supported growth and learning, the loan note converts into either equity, or an equity like instrument called a Revenue Participation Loan (RPL). The RPL repays at a proportion of the charity’s revenue to try to match loan repayments to cash availability.
Converting to an RPL demonstrates that Smart School Councils has reached a new stage in its development where it is able to support repayments. The growth it has gone through over the past two years shows that schools recognise the impact of the Smart School Council service the venture has brought to the education sector.
We asked Greg Sanderson, the co-founder of Smart School Councils, to reflect on his experience of growing a venture with the support of the Young Foundation – both on the Young Academy accelerator programme, and then as part of the Young Academy Investment Fund.
What is Smart School Councils and why is it needed?
I believe that every student should be involved in participation and democracy in school, regardless of their ability or background. 95% of schools have a school council – an elected group of pupils who act as the voice of pupils. But only 2 in 5 pupils feel their school council listens to them, it’s usually higher attaining, more affluent pupils who get involved and they struggle to get things done. We’re changing this through our whole-school intervention aimed at solving the skills and participation gap that exists in schools.
It’s needed because most schools genuinely want to engage every pupil, they just needed the digital tools and structure to make it happen in a busy school environment!
What inspired your idea, and how did you set about getting things off the ground?
I used to work as a Policy Advisor on Citizenship at the Department for Education. We’d visit schools and be presented with the amazing, engaged school council. This was really inspiring, but then you’d ask a pupil in the playground about the school council and they wouldn’t know it existed. I began to think about who this model works for. And is it the best idea to automatically transplant a Westminster-style model into our schools?
We began to work with schools in Haringey to test a new approach, one which focused on a simple idea – to involve every pupil. Alongside social investment from the Young Foundation, we built a clear model with simple tools to achieve this.
What impact have you achieved so far?
It’s amazing to be supporting 360 schools across the world but seeing young people in action is always the highlight. One that always sticks in my mind was in a primary school in East London, where an amazing Year 4 boy with speech and language difficulties was leading a class meeting supported by our digital tool. Having got used to the format and words used in the meetings as a participant, he was expertly guiding the class through their own meeting, developing skills and confidence and helping to engage everyone else.
Tell us about any main challenges you’ve had and how these are being or have been overcome
One of the challenges we face – alongside everyone else – is getting into schools. Teachers are super-busy, really stretched and have to deal with thousands of priorities. Why should they care?
We started to overcome this by being super- clear on what the programme is, how much it costs, how the model works and what support we give. It gives interested teachers a quick idea of how it works. They can easily adapt it if they want, but they don’t have to.
Something we’ve trialled over the summer, after some really useful advice from Bee Digital, was targeted Facebook ads. I hadn’t realised just how many teachers use Facebook for education – there’s loads of really active groups. It’s helped us to start the year with 2,000 new teacher leads.
How did the Young Foundation help you? What did you find most useful?
Young Foundation helped us out with the Young Academy programme which was amazing. It was really useful to work with other education-focused ventures. They also invested in us to develop our tech to make our intervention much easier for our member schools. The word ‘Investor’ can be a bit scary, especially when you’re a charity like us. But I’ve found the support and guidance to be incredibly useful – both at a strategic level and with practical things like forecasting.
What’s your biggest goal for the next 12 months?
I’m really excited by a new project we’re launching in partnership with the Mayor of London. It’s called Every Voice – a programme of targeted support to help Year 5/6 pupils at risk of social exclusion to lead pupil voice in their schools. It’s taking place in Barking and Dagenham and Enfield. This recognises that some pupils will require further support to engage, so it’s great to be doing more to hear from marginalised voices.