How Oak National tempted education’s chief ‘fixer’ into the spotlight

John Roberts is the man government departments, education organisations and many others call when they want to get something tech-related done. He’s managed to keep a low profile while doing it, but his involvement with Oak National Academy and Edapt is about to change that very quickly
14th October 2022, 5:00am
How Oak National tempted education’s chief ‘fixer’ into the spotlight
picture: Russell Sach for Tes


How Oak National tempted education’s chief ‘fixer’ into the spotlight

You probably haven’t heard of John Roberts, but you will know and have used at least one of the many things he’s built, dreamt up, facilitated or been part of. And he‘d like to keep things that way.

“I just like building things,” he says simply. 

Pretty soon, though, his relative anonymity will no longer be possible. Two of the things he is involved in now demand more public attention - and scrutiny. So the modest northerner, who has quietly become the go-to fixer for the sector’s biggest tech challenges, is going to have to adapt.

Roberts, who is currently director of product and engineering at Oak National Academy, does have a history of being flexible: he landed in education via an adaptation. His first choice of career was the Royal Marines, but an injury meant he had to look elsewhere for what he says is a “desire for public service”.

What he found was Teach First. And pretty soon he was in his first job at a Bolton secondary school.

“It was on the verge of special measures,” he recalls. “Even though I grew up a half-hour drive away, I felt like a complete outsider. I just remember working so hard, so flat out, you know, day after day after day. I didn’t expect how hard it would be when I first went into the classroom.”

He didn’t stay in that classroom full-time for long. Having identified several issues that were making the lives of his colleagues - and himself - miserable, he set about fixing the biggest challenge: behaviour management. And having learned to code at university, he decided to build the solution.

“Follow-up after a behaviour incident took so long,” he explains. “It was 2007, we had this behaviour management system; we used to have behaviour tickets, like, yellow slip, pink slip. And the idea was that you kept one bit, the other would go in the head of year’s in-tray, and yet another would go somewhere else. 

“And these slips were meant to ensure that incidents were followed up, but it was all so paperwork-heavy and inefficient. Those slips would sit in in-trays for days and by the time someone got around to it, the incident was long out of everyone’s minds. No one really had any desire to impose the sanction. If they did, the follow-up didn’t really have any impact as the incident was so far away from them consequence.”

A driving force behind Oak National Academy

Backed by the leadership team, he and a friend built a better, digital system. He was made part of the SLT in his second year so he had the timetable time to focus on it (though he did still teach for some of the time). But as became a pattern over the next decade, the pursuit of a solution temporarily took over his entire life. By the time it had launched and had transformed the school’s behaviour approach, Roberts was knackered. “I was just burned out from working on it so much,” he admits.

The system, Reward System, was essentially one of the early pioneers of the streamlined, digital behaviour systems we see in most schools today. It ended up being picked up by many others in the sector and is still used widely, including in some very high-profile schools, but Roberts no longer has much to do with it (though he still has shares in it).

Having poured so much of himself into the product, you might find this odd. But Roberts clearly gets bored easily. He looks for friction and obstacles, and tries to prove that they can be overcome. Once he thinks he’s achieved it, he moves on. And he has moved on often.

Indeed, Roberts seems to have been involved directly, or indirectly, with most of the big education developments of the past decade. That’s partly because some very influential people seem to have him on speed dial: everyone from the Department for Education to edtech companies and from the children’s commisioner’s office to multi-academy trusts seems to have called on his services. He also found time to help out the Usborne Foundation on its reading initiative Teach Your Monster to Read. It appears that if you have a tech issue in education, you just call John. 

How Oak National tempted education’s chief ‘fixer’ into the spotlight


He seems almost ambivalent about all of these endeavours (most of which he can’t talk about publicly). He just shrugs. And smiles. As if he had just fixed your boiler. He’s largely been left alone while doing it, too, with little public scrutiny. 

However, two of his many pursuits may be about to change that. He’s already clearly feeling the strain of both: he tenses when he talks of them, becomes more agitated, a little more defensive.

One he launched in 2012: Edapt, which provides legal support for teachers and school staff. The other he helped to build in the early days of the pandemic as a favour: Oak National Academy.

Oak is perhaps the more contentious, but let’s start with Edapt. Roberts set it up in 2012 as a subscription legal advisory service for teachers.

“We categorise cases as tier one, tier two and tier three - the very vast majority of cases are tier one, which is advice over the phone or email,” he explains. “Tier two requires some kind of complement to the advice, either remote or in person. And tier three cases are where significant support over a long period of time is needed. Ultimately, it may go to the point of an employment tribunal, a police investigation or the Teacher Regulation Agency. Up until that point, all of the support is provided, and then we would decide if we are the best people to take it forward or whether the person would need additional support from elsewhere.”

If that sounds like something a union would normally do, then you’re right: it is. But here’s the thing: Roberts thinks the unions are trying to do too much. He explains that teaching needs to separate out the different components of teacher support, as has been done in medicine. 

“[In medicine] you have the General Medical Council, which is the regulatory body; you have the union, the British Medical Association (BMA), working on pay and conditions; you have the Royal Colleges that provide professional development; and you have a range of organisations providing legal and indemnity support. There is some overlap with the work done, but the functions are largely separate for a good reason,” he explains. “When we were setting up Edapt, the education unions were trying to do all of these functions. Inevitably, those different roles come into conflict with each other. They are not always compatible and it reduces focus.”

Roberts says he has met with the unions, and productive discussions have taken place, but he believes some of them still see Edapt as a threat all the same (interestingly, when you Google Edapt, the first thing you tend to see is an ad for a rival union). Roberts insists Edapt is not a threat. 

“We passionately believe in coexistence - we cover one part, they cover another part,” he says. “We both do what we do best for the benefit of teachers and for the standing of the profession. So when people talk of leaving one of the unions to come to us, as if we are comparable organisations, that is not really accurate.”

Edapt doesn’t publish its membership numbers but, anecdotally, it is clear it has gained some traction through the pandemic. Roberts will only say that it has had subscribers from day one and is now gaining momentum. 

What will give it even more momentum is a shift the government has been looking to make since the start of the year but has thus far failed to bring to fruition: a change in whom teachers can take to grievance and disciplinary meetings.

“In law, the chosen companion during grievance and disciplinary hearings may be a fellow worker, who is usually not experienced or trained in providing support; a trade union rep, who must be certified by the union as reasonably experienced or trained to provide accompaniment; or an official employed by a trade union,” Roberts reveals. “These accompaniment rights are often extended to investigatory meetings as well. Any other request for accompaniment in these hearings from a companion not in one of those categories could be refused by the employer. It’s a minimum right, but it’s up to the employer to decide if they want to allow anyone else.”

How Oak National tempted education’s chief ‘fixer’ into the spotlight


So, in theory, a school could refuse to allow an Edapt representative. And as such, some may see having Edapt represent them as a risk. Roberts - as you might expect - would like to see a change in the law. 

“It would be great to see the legislation change sensibly here, not just for education but for all workers, so that a companion who has been certified by a relevant professional body as reasonably experienced or trained to provide accompaniment could accompany someone when they are invited to a disciplinary or grievance hearing,” he says. 

Wouldn’t that just mean every teacher came to every meeting armed with a lawyer, and costs for all parties would skyrocket? 

“It would be really important to make sure that this isn’t simply allowing lawyers to these hearings as a right,” he admits. “These hearings shouldn’t be over-formalised. Hence the certification by a professional body. This body could be an existing one, like Acas [the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service] or a range of bodies authorised through another mechanism.”

While the government looks like it may struggle to do any form of governance at the moment, the move described above would be popular among most in the Conservative Party and thus stand a good chance of success. If that does happen, that would quite quickly change perceptions of Edapt, and ultimately thrust Roberts into the limelight in a way his previous endeavours have thus far not. He’d have to defend the shift and his role in it, be the public face of it in teaching, or his narrative would be lost. 

Thrust into the public spotlight

It’s a role he clearly would not adapt easily to. However, by the time that happens, he may already be in the consciousness of most in the profession already. And that is because of Oak National Academy. 

The link between Edapt and Oak is that, in Roberts’ mind, both are positive disruptions of the education landscape that should ultimately benefit teachers. Where they differ is that Edapt was a thoroughly well-researched and planned-out launch that has been honed over years, while Oak has had a comparatively more chaotic journey, starting with a text message asking for help amid the chaos of the early days of the pandemic. 

The origins story of Oak and its subsequent iterations and challenges have been well documented by Tes magazine. It started as emergency lessons to facilitate the abrupt shift to home learning, powered by an army of volunteers from the tech and education world (of which Roberts was one). 

As the pandemic shifted to necessitating more of a hybrid of home/school learning, Oak shifted to providing road maps for sequences of lessons (and, ultimately, a curriculum) to bring consistency across the two environments: essentially, the idea was that if you followed the Oak map, then the children at home and school could be delivered the same lesson easily.

Making this all happen was hard, relentless graft that relied on a lot of people giving their time for free. 

“We did what we could,” says Roberts. “It is not perfect. You cannot build a perfect product. But we have now spent a lot of time making small changes that make the experience of Oak a lot better.”

The education system is a huge jigsaw puzzle and what I am trying to do is build products or disrupt for each of the parts of the puzzle

The statistics suggested it was worth the effort. According to Oak, in January 2021, 2.5 million children used the platform in a single week; in total, children have taken part in 150 million lessons and teachers have downloaded 2.5 million quizzes slides and worksheets; and it is now used by 30,000 teachers and 170,000 pupils each week. 

But it is in Oak’s current third phase - becoming an arm’s-length government body and best practice curriculum and resources tool - that controversy has struck. Social media criticisms, publishing industry complaints, the threat of legal challenges from the British Educational Suppliers’ Association and the high-profile withdrawal of a branch of resources from Oak by United Learning CEO Sir Jon Coles all mixed together to create a combative atmosphere around the Oak product. It has forced Roberts tentatively into a more public defence of one of his products than he has been used to, and he seems uncomfortable. 

So why did he not simply walk away? 

Partly, it’s because he is no longer a volunteer - as mentioned earlier, he is now Oak’s director of product and engineering - but mostly it’s because he finds the criticisms puzzling. In his mind, the benefits of Oak for everyone in the sector are obvious. He doesn’t understand the problem some seem to have. 

“We want to build it in as open a way as possible for the benefit of the whole sector,” he stresses. 

What that means, essentially, is making everything transparent and adaptable: the resources, the code underpinning the platform, the lessons. Roberts wants everyone to get involved and everyone to use them how they see fit ,and for this to be a launch pad for further change. 

“If we can enable others to innovate off a great set of resources and curriculum, and they can build better things or alternatives, then this could be of significant public benefit to UK education and the wider market and community,” he says. 

And the data, too: he wants that open as well. 

“We’re aiming to openly release anonymous datasets to enable greater insight into how the products are used,” he explains. “We’ve already worked with research organisations, enabling them to look at our quiz data and see what topics pupils most struggle with. We think opening this sort of data up for analysis could provide interesting research opportunities.”

It’s here that you start to understand Roberts’ motivation for Oak. From afar, it seems a huge risk for a private individual used to prodding education quietly from the sidelines to involve himself with a hugely public - and controversial - challenge. But in Oak, Roberts clearly sees the ultimate disruptive tool, a single hit to shake up the tech sector, pedagogy and lesson and resource production all at once in the hope that what falls out at the end is a better situation for everyone. 

“It’s a great place for public money to be invested, both to save teachers time to enable them to do the things only they can do best, and to help generate innovation for public benefit,” he says. 

Is this an overly optimistic view? Is he naive of the political noise around Oak and the criticisms of its perceived political connections and ambitions? Is it really capable of the disruption he craves?

On the political stuff, he’s not naive about it, but he almost seems to see negotiating it as a pain to be endured to get to his ultimate goal of education market progress. 

“I am not a policy person,” he admits. “Sometimes I build things that interact with policy or that drive policy or that stem from policy, but that’s not why I get involved.”

In his mind, Oak is independent, it’s trying to do something good, and the political accusations clearly frustrate him. That’s not a debate that is going to go away, though. And, as with Edapt, to get to the goals stated above, he will need to face these criticisms head-on, because otherwise he won’t get the buy-in he needs to create the change he so clearly desires. 

Is he ready to do that? The answer appears to be: sort of. 

Yes, he is going to adapt and make himself uncomfortable by being a more public agent for change than he has previously been, but the condition to that is that others come with him. He wants us all to become more uncomfortable because, in his mind, through discomfort comes change. 

And looked at like that, the flashpoints around Edapt and Oak suddenly seem almost useful: both make people uncomfortable in different ways, they challenge convention and they force a debate. In the grand plan of John Roberts, multiple points of disruption create positive transformation. But it’s slow. Oak and Edapt can speed it up.

So no, he isn’t naive enough to think they will change things themselves, but his hope is that they will accelerate change more generally. And for Roberts, that’s enough. 

“The education system is a huge jigsaw puzzle and what I am trying to do is build products or disrupt for each of the parts of the puzzle so we move it in the right direction,” he says. “I wouldn’t be arrogant to say I have been the catalyst for a lot of the disruption, but I have looked to be part of the process where I can help that process.”

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