Back in 2006, when a computing teacher set two S3 students at Mearns Castle High in East Renfrewshire the task of coming up with a room-booking system for the school’s IT suites, he never imagined that they would take that project and transform it into a successful edtech business. But that is exactly what happened.
SchoolCloud – which was founded by Robbie Beattie and Marcus Fields when they were just 15 – is now used by over 6,000 schools to help them with their parents' evenings, school events and room booking, but it was born out of one teacher’s growing frustration.
The first piece of software they developed for their school earned Beattie and Fields £100 and then they launched their business “from the playground”, as they put it, with their first product, Room Booking System.
They kept the business going through university and then a “momentous moment” came in 2014, says Fields, when they sunk a third of everything they had into attending the 2014 Bett Show, where they won the ICT Company of the Year award for their category.
SchoolCloud: Edtech entrepreneurs in the classroom
That year, they also hired their first employee. By November 2019, they were celebrating having signed up 4,000 schools.
Fields says: “I remember turning to Robbie in the playground in high school and saying something like, ‘There are 20,000 schools in the UK – if we get into 10 per cent of them we would be doing amazing.'”
He adds: “If we do anything, we do it well, and we stick at it. It’s the ‘if you are going to do something, do it properly’ mentality...And that’s really what the company was built on – having a product that is based in class, intuitive to use and is backed by outstanding customer support.
“In the early days we weren’t focused on growing our business, we were just focused on being the best room resource scheduling software, and the business has grown organically all this time.”
Then, in early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Before schools started closing in the UK, Beattie and Fields saw what was happening elsewhere and turned their minds to how they could support schools if they were forced to shut their doors. They decided to stick to what they knew – parents' evenings – and quickly developed a virtual parents' evening solution.
When the decision was taken to close UK schools last March, they made their products – room booking, parents' evenings and event booking – available free of charge for the rest of the school year.
By August 2020 over 20 million minutes of video calls had been clocked up through the virtual parents' evenings solution; by November that had grown to 200 million minutes.
The pandemic also led to another use for their events booking product. Typically this is used to book trips, plays or talks, but in recent times it has also been used by schools to book Covid-testing slots.
Now SchoolCloud products are used by over 6,400 schools, and last month the company was bought by Tes.
The computing teacher who helped the company's founders back in 2006 is Iain Cairns, who retired in 2016. He explains: “At that time we had eight IT rooms in the school, which were free to book by teachers from other subjects. The process was a folder was left in each IT room and staff came along and chose the day and period(s) they wanted to book.
“I was getting fed up with the constant interruptions of my lessons with staff frequently popping in to book rooms, so I challenged my third-year class to come up with an online solution to this.”
The class had a lot of intelligent, hardworking students in it, says Cairns, who was principal teacher of computing at the time, but ultimately it was Beattie and Fields' solution that the school’s senior management team decided to go with.
Cairns says he did not expect the project to lead to his students establishing an award-winning edtech company, but he was not surprised that it did. Beattie and Fields were “exceptional” students, he says.
“I am immensely proud to see how much success they have had," Cairns adds. “Both boys have worked very, very hard to achieve this success. I would like to say I played an important role in their success, but, to be honest, they would have succeeded regardless.
“All I did was challenge them to produce a solution to an obvious problem. It was the boys who learned the code, did the marketing and built their very successful business.
“They are fine young men and deserve all the rewards their success brings them.”
Rod Williams, chief executive of Tes, said: “As a leading provider of software solutions to schools, we have seen a growing adoption of technology by schools to help with all manner of tasks, from managing pupil behaviours to planning class timetables and monitoring staff wellbeing.
“However, this year schools have understandably looked to adopt new technology with a greater sense of urgency. This is likely to leave a longstanding valuable legacy, given the clear benefits SchoolCloud has brought to schools. We’re very excited about this now becoming part of Tes’ offering to schools.”