Empowering parents as the primary educators of their children.
Jen Lexmond, Founder and CEO, EasyPeasy UK.
Jen is Founder & CEO of edtech startup, EasyPeasy. Previously, Jen worked in policy and research, leading work around social mobility.
She has held positions at Demos, RSA and Nesta, as well as spending time at Government Digital Services, working with different UK government departments.
The Big Change
EasyPeasy is an evidence led enterprise, working to reduce the gap in school readiness that is already apparent by age 4 and goes on to predict massive inequalities later in life in health, wealth, and wellbeing.
“Our approach was to get parents and children interacting more. So that’s what we did. We came up with this content bank of games – all real-world games, because the development theory is very clear that it’s through the parent-child interaction – and rather than giving advice on how to be a good parent, we would send them an actual thing that they could do and that they could do now, something they wouldn’t have to pay money for, or prepare.”
The ambition for change
The big vision for EasyPeasy is: to close developmental gaps in early childhood and improve long term outcomes by supporting parents in their role as primary educators.
This is being achieved through a mobile app that enables early learning practitioners and institutions to share evidence-based, educational games that parents can play at home with their children.
The shift in direction
Despite all the evidence on the predictive power of early child development for longer term outcomes, resources are organised to focus more on the formal education sector, with dominant narrative and policies seeing parents as peripheral figures compared to teachers.
So there’s a big cognitive dissonance between what we actually know from the evidence base about the importance of early years, child development and importantly the role of parents, and what is happening.
There is also a series of significant design challenges for how policy and public services can effectively support parents and early learning environments.
Making change happen
1: The start point
Co-design with parents
As part of a challenge prize called ‘The Knee High Challenge’, led by the Design Council, funded by Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity, Jen was able to combine the existing evidence base around early years learning with a deep understanding of the lived experiences of parents. Co-designing and prototyping with parents led to the idea of sending parents activities and games they can do with their kids.
“We learnt that parents don’t necessarily see the role that they play in education and development. They see that they’re relevant for physical and nutritional stuff, but not as much around cognitive and even social and emotional. We also learned that they’re universally exhausted and time poor”.
2: Taking off
Gathering early evidence of impact
Through involvement in programmes like the Knee High Challenge, and The Parental Engagement Programme, funded by The Sutton Trust, Jen received both initial funding and importantly design and evaluation expertise. This built the strong foundations needed to grow quickly.
“In The Sutton Trust programme Professor Kathy Silver, who was at the Department of Education at Oxford, was on hand as an evaluation partner and we were able to work with her team to run two randomised control trials of EasyPeasy quite early on, actually very early on. We could get our foot in the door through having this impact that we’ve been able to show through our controlled trials, which has been really helpful.”
Thinking about scale from the start
EasyPeasy’s big vision is to get into the hand of every parent across the UK. Their app has been designed for scale and is continuously improved to have the best possible user experience at the lowest possible cost. The technological aspect of their product allows for low barriers to entry for parents – all they need is their smartphone – and a low unit cost for the early learning institutions who purchase the license.
“If you want to compete with the stuff that does truly scale that parents are using for their kids – like Peppa Pig – you need to be able to compete at that level.”
3. Keeping going
Balancing sustainability with social mission
Jen recognised that in the current funding climate, EasyPeasy needed a sustainability strategy. Their commitment to equity meant avoiding a consumer-based business model that might exclude families that are economically disadvantaged. Instead, they opted to license to nurseries and schools. They also set up as a company limited by shares, meaning it could raise money in lots of different ways – through grants, contracts from governments, schools and direct sales, but also by raising equity investment from social impact angel investors.
“We have a social mission statement written into our articles which we did at the suggestion of one of our funders. There’s still a lot of questions and uncertainty within public services and within the foundation world around whether they should be supporting private companies. How do people prove their social mission?”
Doing the business of systems change
Expanding people’s understanding of early years learning and child development has been a prerequisite of Easy Peasy’s work. From the existing dissonance between what we know and what we do, Jen knew that a high-quality product was not enough. She and colleagues have had to invest time and effort in raising the level of awareness so that other changes will follow, like decisions about how to spend money on what products and services, or on the training that teachers undergo, or how a teacher thinks about parents or how they think about what they can do to better engage and empower them. Building relationships with organisations and people who convene spaces has been critical in finding opportunities to have conversations with decision-makers and strengthen their understanding of the problem.
“Most businesses would choose an area where all of that stuff is already aligned and then they build a product that they can sell straight into a system that wants what they have to offer. Whereas we’re also in the world of behaviour change. So you’ve got two things going on: you need a service or a product that works really well, that’s a delightful experience for your users and all the rest of it, but you also need to go about this business of systems change.”
Building coalitions and shared messages
Jen and colleagues recognised that they couldn’t pursue systems change on their own. They sought to build coalitions with people who understand the evidence and are compelled by the need for a new approach. By working with those people to build shared messages, they were able to tell good stories and share compelling evidence that convinced others.
“We work with the Ark Academy chain and we have a really great relationship with their head of early years and she totally gets all of this stuff. She’s been working to infiltrate and get those messages out to others in her world. We’ve been working together to get all those headteachers convinced enough to give it a go and we’ve now rolled out through most of the Ark primary schools, many of which have nurseries attached.”
Taking change wider
Even though the money hasn’t followed the rhetoric, the growing, shared political consensus about the importance of early intervention, early years and increasingly the role of parents has been a key enabling condition for success. For instance, at the end of July 2018, the Secretary of State for Education reaffirmed his commitment to supporting parents as the key to social mobility.
“Those narratives exist and there has been enabling support through that which has helped raise awareness of what we’re doing, and other people are telling the story – it’s not just us.”
The impact of change
In 2018, EasyPeasy is scaling to over 17,000 families and over 200 schools and nurseries across England through the support of the Education Endowment Foundation.
- Two rigorous randomised control trials found that EasyPeasy has a positive effect on children’s social and emotional development and parents’ engagement.
- Professor Kathy Sylva from the University of Oxford, who evaluated EasyPeasy, commented that it “increased the school readiness of children” by helping them to develop “grit” and the skills required to persist with tasks.
- In one trial, participant families were predominantly native English speakers and in the other trial a high percentage of participants were families who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL). The replication of findings across these two very different communities suggests EasyPeasy’s impact will be consistent in whatever community it is delivered.
- “EasyPeasy is a 21st century approach that builds on the longstanding traditions of nursery education and community work with families. We know that parent support at home makes the biggest difference of all and EasyPeasy helps us to share these messages with parents in an accessible way. Parents tell us that they like the app and they enjoy the activities with their children.” – Headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School.