Drive to succeed

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Martin Littler started on the buses. Now, after 11 years of teaching, he heads a software firm turning over Pounds 2.5m. met him

There are plenty of former teachers working in educational software, but only one managing director I know of started his working life driving buses - and Martin Littler of Inclusive Technology still has his public service vehicle licence if he ever needs to go back and do it again.

Littler taught in a number of primary schools in Everton, Toxteth and other parts of Liverpool. The first time he came across a computer was on a maths diploma course when he was fascinated by a 32K machine in a room of its own and operated with punch tape. "I tried to program it to solve the Rubik's cube, " he says.

He undertook a computers in education diploma, using Commodore PETs, and then co-founded the Liverpool Primary Computer Group. "I instantly found computers fascinating, and teaching was free enough in those days that you could show the children how interesting it was too. Computing then was teacher-led, dragging the local authorities along kicking and screaming in protest." Littler was later seconded to MEP (a precursor of the National Council for Educational Technology, now the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) for a year where his job was to review all the primary software available.

By the mid-Eighties, he had been teaching for 11 years and was deputy head of a Liverpool primary school, at which point information technology entered his professional life again. "I became an advisory teacher for IT and primary education in Lancashire - two of us covered all 650 primary schools."

It wasn't long before a job came up at Manchester Semerc, one of the regional ICT centres for special needs. "The job I wanted was the training role. I remember writing my application using Wordwise on a BBC." The centre looked after special needs and ICT in 39 local authorities - with four staff - and it had to cover Northern Ireland as well.

"I knew we would have to close in 1989 when the funding stopped. I could see the reasons for this, but there was a danger of all that had learnt not being passed on. Blue File (a software distribution service) for example, was an extremely inefficient way of distributing excellent software. Northwest Semerc distributed more of that software in seven weeks than the Blue File scheme did in seven years."

After funding was withdrawn, Oldham volunteered to lead a group of eight local authorities to keep Semerc open. Changing the name to Northwest Semerc was soon followed by the first of eight Micros in Special Needs exhibitions. Two of the other three Semercs disappeared immediately, so NW Semerc was very important for the special needs community. "We needed to be there tomorrow, so the till-ringing side of it all was music to my ears: and turnover grew from Pounds 70,000 to over Pounds 2 million in 1995."

Changes always come though, and Littler knew that others were interested in what was happening. Things didn't work out between Littler and Semerc's new owners, YITM (it is now owned by Granada Learning).

artin left the company in 1996 and formed Inclusive Technology with help from Ocean Software. Inclusive is now owned by its employees, all of whom worked with Littler at Semerc. Now he is more circumspect: "It's tough to put 10 years into something and see the Grim Reaper standing by your shoulder." Inclusive has carried on much of the work Littler began in Manchester. "I see myself as having had one job since 1986," he says.

He knows that marketing is as important as development, and that the company must be integrationalist and inclusive and not just serve the special needs sector. "We must make what we do useful to the mainstream - we need to be a double-decker bus with a ramp, not the minibus following the double-decker, " he explains .

Littler also wants Inclusive to be involved in dissemination to others, and the company will be creating a special needs online magazine for BT's CampusWorld service called Octopus. "We are also going to produce OFSTED league tables, so you can compare reports by the same inspectors - a bit like looking at past papers for an exam. And we'll be commenting on how well the inspections were carried out; after all, if league tables are good, they are good for everyone. We'll be offering this service from January 1999."

Looking to the future, Littler hopes that Inclusive will be even more closely tied to developments in the US. "The market is six times as big as the UK, and in Europe only the Nordic countries are as close to our way of working. We have to internationalise our work and we will continue to do so. We are very keen on open access - our website is the largest open-access IT and special needs site in the world with over 1,000 pages."

Littler expects Inclusive to grow by as much as 50 per cent annually over the next five years. "Our turnover will be about Pounds 4 million, 40 per cent of it from the US. Half of our sales will be through the Internet - I wish it was 100 per cent. And perhaps 10 per cent of our products will be delivered through the Internet." It doesn't seem as if there will be time for moonlighting as an Oldham bus driver for Martin Littler in the next few years.

Inclusive Technology 01457 819790

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