The Young Academy Investment Fund was established to fill a gap in the finance available to early stage startups which were attempting to revolutionise the education system. When we invested a small amount to allow East Learning to build a prototype of its Aspirations programme, founder Matt Lees didn’t have much more than a big idea and a solid plan. Two years, a lot of hard work and a growing team later, and we are bowled over by the impact that East’s Aspirations programme is having on young people’s lives.  

The conversion into a Revenue Participation Loan reflects our belief that East has reached a level of maturity where it now has a clear business plan and forecasts which allows us to understand how our loan can be repaid.  

To celebrate the conversion, we asked East co-founder Angharad Thomas to tell us a bit more about the organisation, the work it does and where it is going next. 

What does East Learning do? 

East Learning CIC (“East”) exists to help schools systematically quantify and narrow the opportunity and achievement gaps experienced by young people with disadvantaged backgrounds. Our mission is to help our schools become somewhere their students want to be, and education something all young people recognise as relevant to them. This is particularly important today, in order to re-engage the large numbers of students ‘lost’ to their schools during Coronavirus closures.  

 Through our flagship programme, Aspirations, we help schools understand their students’ needs and interests; plan and deliver pastoral, careers and enrichment programmes which fit; and measure the impact that these programmes are having. For a student, this is an online, strengths-based development coaching platform which helps them articulate their ambitions, set short-term goals and find appropriate support. For staff, Aspirations encompasses the frameworks, data, tools and training required to take this information and use it to provide increasingly effective support for every individual.   

We support all secondary school students, with a focus on schools in disadvantaged areas. The schools we currently work with have an average of 26.2% of students eligible for FSM (2019) —some as high as 45% and 46%—versus a national average of 12.4%  

The past two years 

When we first pitched to the Young Foundation, we were very much in pilot phase; our approach was demonstrably making a difference but given that it consisted of Matt Lees and a few temperamental spreadsheets, it wasn’t particularly scalable.  

Fast forward two years, and we’re a 5-person team with a fullyfledged web application supporting over 12,000 students. Aspirations has proved extremely successful, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the staff at our partner schools, we’ve discovered that when you give teachers information about what will help their students, they will have put something in place before you’ve even left the room! And the impact has been dramatic: in one school they halved exclusions and reduced absenteeism by 24% in just one year, by using the information to make school somewhere their students actively wanted to be. In a second, the destinations profile for sixth form leavers was significantly improved: those going to university increased from 58% to 84%, with over a 3x increase in both STEM subjects and Russell Group entries.  

Impact of Covid 

Like most organisations, Covid-19 hit us hard; almost all of the 32 schools scheduled to run their initial assessments in April-June postponing until September. That said, we were delighted to be able to continue supporting our current schools throughout the lockdown, by rapidly adapting the programme to create “Aspirations at Home”. In addition to making the site mobile-friendly, this project included adding hundreds of carefully curated, age-appropriate online resources to our site, tagged to the different ‘Aspirations focus areas’ (from career paths to characteristics). We also created a new suite of materials which would allow the programme to be rolled out remotely with minimal staff inputs, from printed versions for those without technology to information for parents and guardians about how they could support their children to think about their future and their interests. This work essentially fast forwarded a lot of our future plans—so one positive impact of Covid-19 has been that we are ready to scale rapidly a little sooner than originally expected!   

What’s next 

Our ops and software are now ready to scale, and we’ve proved how well Aspirations can work—so now the focus is on supporting more young people across the country! Our ultimate goal is to demonstrate why a data-driven, student-centred approach to personal development should be adopted by schools nationwide. We’re also starting to work with local authorities, which can use the student data we capture to tailor local provision to meet demand. There’s also huge potential to use it to identify those who would benefit from early interventions and to make sure existing services are reaching the ‘right’ people.  

Innovation and Investment Posted on: 8 September 2020


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