Tales from an EdTech data doyen: Joshua Perry

Tales from an EdTech data doyen: Joshua Perry


Tales from an EdTech data doyen: Joshua Perry

An entrepreneur with a penchant for numbers and data; is it any wonder Joshua Perry turned his talents to the EdTech space? EdSmart sat down with him to tease out the details.

It’s ridiculously difficult to take an idea for a business venture and develop it into a living, breathing, financially sustainable entity. In most instances, if it doesn’t burn you out (and your savings), it leaves you vowing to never do something like that again. But that’s not Joshua Perry.

As one of the masterminds behind Carousel Learning and Smartgrade, his two latest ventures, Joshua is someone who has entrepreneurial talent embedded in his DNA. His specific interest in the education space was ignited when he joined Ark Schools, a charity of 39 schools helping young people overcome obstacles to a solid educational foundation, as Director of Program Support in 2012.

In 2015, he launched what would become the first of his three start-ups within the space of a decade, Assembly, a joint venture with backing from Ark Schools and the UK’s National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), to “help schools do more with their data”, as he describes it.

Following the acquisition of Assembly by Community Brands in 2019, he joined Aircury, a software company producing products for the non-profit and education sector, where he remains to this day in software development, sales and marketing, as well as being a part-time director for his EdTech consultancy, Edtech Experts.

This all led to his co-founding of Smartgrade, an assessment platform for schools and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) across the UK, and Carousel Learning, a quizzing and retrieval practice tool for schools. If that doesn’t impress you, the fact that both these enterprises were established less than six months apart in 2020 — the year a global pandemic shook the world and caused no end of chaos in education around the globe — should indicate his level of drive and tenacity.

Joshua says his entrepreneurial background is the main reason why he is where he is today. As for his entry into the education sector, the time he spent at Ark Schools was something of an awakening. Poring over the data that schools generate — particularly assessment data — really gave him something to sink his teeth into. Producing accurate and useful information from a Management Information System (MIS) was a challenge that sits at the heart of everything he does.

“I’m a data geek by background,” Joshua explains. “I was a management consultant once as well, and I definitely have spent a lot of my career crunching data and have really enjoyed that.”

“What people in the education sector often grapple with is, ‘Is this data accurate or useful?’,” he continues. “We might be doing some analysis on data, but that data might not be reliable. It might not be valid in a way that doesn’t really happen in other industries. For example, if you’re counting your stock or your sales for the third quarter, a pound is a pound, notwithstanding accounting vagaries. But, in education, if you’re looking at the assessment of a child and they score a B, does that mean they’re at the level of a B, or does it mean they’re at the level of an A but they slept badly last night? Or does it mean that the test was really badly designed?”

“There’s a philosophical question to what is a useful piece of information in the first place,” Joshua admits, “and I think that’s the question that actually gets under-considered. It’s fair to say the numbers tell you a lot, but you need to make sure you’re looking at the right numbers, and how do you that is a deceptively hard question to answer.”

Bring More Data

As well as Carousel and Smartgrade, Joshua has carved out a niche as a leading Management Information Systems blogger with his Bring More Data blog. Describing the blog as “a side hobby”, it’s become a valuable resource for people looking to understand more about MIS and schools.

“When I started the blog, I wasn’t planning to work as an analyst of the MIS world, or even an analyst of the EdTech sector,” he says. “I was in a leadership role in a Multi-Academy Trust and I was interested in community EdTech, had an idea for a venture which became Assembly, but I hadn’t really started it yet, and I wanted a way of getting to know the sector. So, part of it was that, but another part of it was actually wanting to play around with analysis tools.”

“Somebody I knew, Graham Reed, who has been around in UK education for a long time and is a really good guy, gave me access to a MIS dataset, of which MIS every school in the country uses. When you get a primary dataset, as a data geek, that’s fun and exciting,” he confesses. “Again, for the venture that I was setting up, I thought it would be helpful if I understood what the best practices out there were for data analysis. So, I wanted to play around with things like Tableau, a data visualisation tool, which I still use for writing my blogs. I didn’t have any sort of commercial intentions for the Bring More Data blog, though.”

“I think the first blog I wrote was read by 12 people and a dog! But the blog has benefitted from two things: One, if you write something consistently over time, then people come to find it, and I think each year, more people have sort of found it and are interested in the MIS market and EdTech more generally. Then the second thing is, in 2020, things got interesting. And by that, I mean companies trying to acquire MIS, and MIS wanting to sell themselves, so market share started to change significantly. There was more to write about.”

The MIS landscape in the UK

When Joshua first started picking apart MIS data, there was one dominant player: SIMS, a locally hosted system, with more than 80 percent of the market. That began to change around 2019 and 2020 when the likes of Arbor and Bromcom entered the playing field and embarked on some genuine disruption. In the years since, SIMS’ market share has begun to decline.

“The big change was in 2022,” he explains, “when SIMS had quite a dramatic decline in market share and several thousand schools. I think, in the end, something around 18 percent of their schools moved away from them in one year.”

He explains it as an unprecedented change in the landscape: “We’ve never had change like that or anything close to that in the UK. Maybe three or four percent was the average over time. And that was linked to some strategic decisions that SIMS made that led to some schools being rather unhappy with them. They’ve been trying to build a cloud alternative for over a decade now, they’re on their third iteration of trying, and sooner or later schools stop believing that’s coming or just get impatient and look elsewhere.”

Crystal-balling digital transformation in UK schools

Not surprisingly, Joshua leans heavily on the available data to form a picture of what the future might look like for MIS in the UK.

“I’d expect a continued decline of SIMS and a continued growth of Arbor and Bromcom,” he predicts. “I think, when you talk about digital transformation tools, the more interesting question is, what will the MIS do, and what room is there for other people to do useful things alongside that? The MIS is definitely getting broader in scope in the UK, and, I think, globally actually.”

As he sees it, the future will involve third parties providing services that an MIS would find hard to perform because of the investment required: “So, I think it’s a world where, first of all, digital transformation is important and can really help schools. But secondly, I think the role is for people other than the MIS to be doing that well.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether Joshua’s data analysis will prove prophetic but, if his runs-on-board are any indication, we can take his predictions as educated ones. Watch this space.

Read more about what Joshua Perry has to say concerning data in EdTech at his Bring More Data blog.

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