Hello, and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast, the podcast that brings you the latest in the world of tutoring EdTech and education and hopefully inspires in us a big change that each and every one of us is capable of.
Qualified Tutor is an industry-leading tutor training organisation and an online tutoring community for 1000s of tutors around the world. This podcast is the voice of this community, where we aim to hear from tutors, teachers, entrepreneurs, coaches, business experts, students, tutor printers, and more from the world of tutoring about what inspires them every day, how they can help tutors like you and what they’ve learned about tutoring along the way.
The question is, what will you learn today?
Ludo Millar 1:59
Hello, and welcome to the 126th episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. My name is Ludo Millar, the host of this podcast. Welcome back to regular listeners. Welcome to interview for whom this is your first time listening to the Qualified Tutor Podcast. And of course, a huge welcome to two good friends and today’s guests, Walter Kerr and Henry Faber. Welcome, Walter. Welcome, Henry.
Henry Faber 3:28
Thank you for having us.
Walter Kerr 3:29
Ludo Millar 3:30
It’s a real pleasure to have you guys on, even 126 episodes into this podcast. I’ve known Walter and Henry much longer than this podcast has been going on. So it’s good to have you guys on. As an introduction for you listeners to Walter and Henry: they are the founders of a hugely successful and very exciting education company called Oppidan Education, a multifaceted mentorship business that works with schools and families, puts on fantastic kids camps, helps children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds become mentors themselves through their charitable arm, and generally pushes forward the agenda for high-quality, one-on-one and group education in this country. I myself have been very proudly a mentor for Oppidan for the past two and a half years, since January 2020. It would have been January 2016 – Henry, I don’t know if you remember this – but Henry quite rightly told me when I first emailed him to hold tight for a few years and get back to him once I’d graduated, which I duly did, pulled up the old email and emailed Henry in January 2020. So the rest is is history really.
But I hope you listeners get a really good sense of this duo’s infectious energy and vision really for education over the next half an hour or so. So welcome guys, regular listeners will know we kick off the podcast with a new segment I introduced which takes people back to the very early days of their education, their careers. So I gather there were a few anecdotes and tales from your school days that you might be happy to share. Henry, can we start with you?
Henry Faber 5:21
Yeah, I mean, the main thing I can think of is that my housemaster at school would write these very beautiful, kind of elegiac letters at the end of each year to try and explain or sort of encapsulate who you are as a student. And my mum and dad have very proudly kept the last one he wrote for me when I was 18, which said, ‘Henry seems very keen to be an actor. But I think he’s barking up the wrong tree. Basically, is far more likely to start running something and try and grow a business, I can totally see it playing out over the next 10 years’. And I remember thinking, God, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And we’ve stayed close friends. He’s been an adviser to our business, and I need to find a copy of it. But it’s something that that’s been very, yeah, very relevant.
Ludo Millar 6:05
But both of those things are relevant, are they not? He said there that you would do better as an actor – that’s something that you’ve been living in the last 12 months or so, isn’t it?
Henry Faber 6:15
It’s been a bit of a one-off. I’ve been scratching an itch for this year doing a bit of acting, but I have no control over the acting or the company I’m a lowly member of. I much prefer coming into work and telling Walter what to do. It’s great.
Ludo Millar 6:29
Okay, so your teacher back then was right, to some extent. And Walter, is there a particular pattern of feedback that teachers gave?
Walter Kerr 6:40
Yeah, I mean, I suppose the genesis of our business goes back, subliminally anyway, to when we were about 9, we played on the cricket pitch at rival junior schools, and then went to the same secondary school and Henry sat at the front of the class, and answered questions diligently and I sat at the back of the class, and more often than not fell asleep. [LAUGHS] He drove a car into work, I didn’t pass my driving test until 26, you get the idea. So the idea of starting a business with Hen, age 16, was probably foreign. But so it happened. And we’ve enjoyed every second since.
Henry Faber 7:16
Walter’s really playing up to the stereotype, because there’s so much behind that context that’s not understood there. Walter’s telling me what to do every day with to-do lists, and it’s far more rigorous. I think that things aren’t always a reflection of life once you move past childhood.
Ludo Millar 7:31
How the tables have turned. So I mean, you two obviously were mentors yourselves, and still do some mentoring work alongside the fact that you are obviously business owners as well as running an ever-growing team. But I’d love to know that fundamental reason for why you do what you do and Walter, what would you say is your WHY as a mentor?
Walter Kerr 7:58
Well, I don’t think I’d have started Oppidan if the value proposition of the business wasn’t an inherent part of what I would have benefited from at that age. I would have massively benefited from someone who just walked the walk that I was going to walk. And I mean, you start a business for two reasons: one is that you have an issue or not an issue, but you think there’s a point of difference to the incumbent of the market. And the second reason is that you’re passionate about the programme. And the latter seems to me the most vital thing, I was just massively into that support as a kid. So that’s my why.
Ludo Millar 8:39
Yeah. And Henry?
Henry Faber 8:41
I’ve got 4 younger sisters. And I think I’ve always felt naturally at ease hanging around people younger than me. It horrifies me that some of our mentees think I’m an old man now aged 30, I still feel very much in tune with what they’re going through and just really enjoyed spending time with kids sort of through university and leaving university, through home and then through extensions of that, with family, friends, and so on. And then once I started tutoring, and then sort of working on this in a more formal academic capacity, I just felt that the role I was playing for those families was far more around role modelling and mentorship than it was around academics. I was pretty loose actually on the academics and felt myself always kind of exploring to be up to scratch in terms of content and academia and actually, the role was far more of a delicate kind of peacekeeper. I often talk about, you know, parachuting into enemy territory needing to read the situation really quickly behind enemy lines, that part of it just fascinates me and being someone who can be impartial to a family and support them in many different ways beyond the curriculum, so I guess it was just a natural comfort and an enjoyment of that process and then trying to look to make more of that.
Ludo Millar 9:59
So I mean, I alluded to it there briefly, but still being on the frontline, to continue your military analogy, Henry, that’s a large part of what you do, isn’t it? I mean, you haven’t really relinquished that part of it totally have you?
Henry Faber 10:13
No, we try. We try. No, we have a handful of kids each, and it has become increasingly difficult, the larger the team size. My mum always used to say ‘small kids, small problems. Big kids, big problems’. It’s definitely the same with business. But we love spending time doing it. Because also, if we’re developing content, you know, stuff around character education, what are we going to be running in schools, how are we changing and developing and training the mentors, you’ve just got to be doing that yourself as well.
Walter Kerr 10:43
I went to go and listen to a talk by the founder of Deliveroo when we first started. He said that he still delivers. And I thought it’s a good motto to live by, you’ve got to be out on the field, trying to work out what these kids are thinking and doing and get on that level. So yeah, we still love it. And it’s magic.
Henry Faber 11:02
I really- they’ll fire me before I, you know, fire them so to speak. I’ll be told I’m no longer relevant, I’m sure very, very soon.
Ludo Millar 11:09
Which is actually, I mean, I remember one of the guests on this podcast said that that was their aim as a tutor was to be was dismissed almost and, you know, that was when they knew that they had succeeded. And their role was that the child had got to a point where they could say, ‘I don’t need you anymore’. It would be a pretty mighty surprise to climb into an Uber and find that the driver was in fact, the CEO and founder, wouldn’t it, but it’s good to see that transferring into education.
Now, anyone who knows Oppidan will know that one of your great strengths is in ;mentoring the individual; as it were, rather than just ‘tutoring the child’, more of that long-term, delicate approach that you were just talking about there, Henry. Walter, why would you say this approach has worked so well over the past 6 years or so since you guys started Oppidan?
Walter Kerr 12:05
Well, if I go back a little bit, I mean, perhaps I can take you as an example. What re good mentors? I mean, good mentors are attuned to seeing other people’s needs and vulnerabilities quickly, and aspirations and often barriers to those aspirations, and then working out very quickly what to do. And the one virtue that links all mentors, regardless of whether you’re an Oppidan one is good emotional intelligence. And so that’s the inherent strength of a mentor, I think. Obviously from a business perspective, there are many- I think, for all its strengths, and I’m dead keen to hear what you think about this point, not sure it’ll be entirely popular, but we thought, rightly or wrongly, that tuition suffered from a remedial tag. A child had a tutor because they needed it. And I always left the room thinking, ‘God, I’m not sure they want me here’. And the tutor has hundreds of good qualities. But that was one thing that stuck out.
So going forward over the last six years, the aim has been where possible to inverse that narrative and say, well, we all need a mentor, Roger Federer, Ludo Millar, you know, whoever, needs a mentor. And I think children are buoyed by that narrative. And if you then have a pedagogy behind that, then you have something of real substance. So yeah, I think that- I suppose that narrative shift is just one example of the approach.
Ludo Millar 13:32
That’s a new way of thinking about it, a way that in which lots of our listeners, I guess, will not have thought of before. I mean, the idea that- well, for one, the idea that everyone needs a mentor is a good business case, isn’t it, you’re suddenly increasing your potential customer base by, you know, however much but I think that shift away from the idea that it’s only for a certain group of people tutoring, or mentoring. And that actually, the way that you can improve working with a student is not by saying, ‘I’m here because someone told me to be here. I’m here because actually, we work well together’, which is something that maybe schools don’t always get to benefit from, you know, often children go into school because they have to, and that’s kind of that, you know, dragging themselves into school each morning, rather than bounding in which a lot of great mentors can produce.
Walter Kerr 14:30
I think, I mean, we stand on the shoulders of people much more successful than us who have helped us initially start the business and then continually provide advice and those are friends of yours, too, in the tuition sector. So giving advice seems odd. I would just say, you know, the promise we make to kids is at the moment they don’t enjoy it, we stop and you put the entire decision making of that hour’s session on the child and borrow from anything. It negates any coercion that the parent needs to do. But anyway, that’s in our sales cycle as it happens, so yeah,
Ludo Millar 15:05
Yeah. So was that an approach that you guys knew you wanted to deliver from the start of Oppidan? Or is that something you’ve come to see over the years?
Henry Faber 15:15
I actually think it is. I think it’s one of the few things that has stayed the same. There is a horrific business plan somewhere in a drawer getting dusty, which we’ll never come back to [LAUGHS]. But amid all of that, there’s this idea that kids should really enjoy it. And we talk a lot about breaking expectations, and changing expectations and wanting kids to feel really proud of the work they’re doing with their mentor. And the best anecdote I have for that is that our summer camp in July this year, 150 kids in a field near Henley, they were all running around on day one, comparing their mentors to each other, you know, ‘Oh, who’s your mentor? My mentor’s Ludo, my mentor’s Walter. I had never thought in my wildest dreams that that was a possibility, you know, kids wearing the t-shirt, kids asking to buy stash from our website, you know, it’s a really trite example that’s not educationally really that relevant. But I think it’s just an important example of how education can be painted in a really positive way. And the buy-in that you get from that from the parents as well, is massive because if the parent sees this as something that their kid’s really committed to, you know, they’re far more trusting of the process.
Walter Kerr 16:23
We have a great mentor ourselves called Sharath Jeevan, who’s a sort of seminal frontrunner in the theory behind intrinsic motivation. He’s actually written a good book called Intrinsic, which your listeners should check out. And his theory is on keeping kids motivated based on this idea of autonomy. And that’s one of three pillars that he thinks motivates kids. So a lot of the resources and the work we’ve done have been built out on that principle, the idea of ownership, controlling your narrative, so to speak. So yeah, I mean, your question is, it started like that, and then the world of character education is continually developing research is coming out more and more, and that’s wonderful. Researchers like him have been helpful to us, for sure.
Ludo Millar 17:12
It was certainly- I mean, the initial training I received when I was first a mentor, I think, delivered by yourself, Walter, was, from the very first minute, it was new, it was fresh, and it felt very, very relevant. The way that you approached it from that motivation side. And the way that you lead, not with academics. And actually, I think that feeds very well into the next part of what I wanted to talk about, which is, from the student to the tutor, and the mentor and the mentee, you know, those who work in your team, because I think that is something that you guys have done magnificently well is pull on both threads of the business. I think any business, any education business, has to deal with those two sides, how to keep their customer base and how to keep their mentor base. And it’d be to know how you guys have managed to imbue that ethos, the values that you live by and those values that you demand or ask your mentors to use with students. How have you managed to keep that running through the team that you have, the office team and the mentor team that you’ve built up?
Henry Faber 18:30
So, a really good question. When I think of our full-time office team, without really having tried to find these people, they are inherently very reflective, thoughtful, educationally focused, quite youthful, very dynamic and ambitious. And that just self perpetuates, I think, and you set expectations very high. We sort of steal that freedom and responsibility ethos, which we try and use in the work culture within the office team, give people as much slack as possible, and then just see what they do with it. And that’s worked really well in terms of the mentor team. I think we’ve tried to make really, really clear that it’s mentor first.
I wanted to sort of caveat what I say by saying that we had some really positive experiences working in the tuition sector before starting off; it’s the only reason we have this business is because those were such strong experiences. And we have huge respect for the sector more broadly. What I did feel at times was that the larger teams grow, the harder it is to feel that you’re really part of a mission or a wider vision. And however good the training and the safeguarding and the curriculum and the content you’re offered, if you don’t feel really loyal to that team, why would you keep working for that team? And so that’s been front of our minds from day one. And it’s not always been easy, it’s still not, but you’ve got to try and serve mentors to then serve young people. And Walter talks a lot about this kind of ’employability accelerator’ that we’ve developed, which is the idea that hook mentors in with something that will really benefit their own lives for two years, or three years or more, and if they see the inherent benefit in that, they’re likely to get far more and see much greater reward for it both financially and and spiritually, let’s say, in the time that follows, so that then just takes shape and everything beneath it. But I think you leave with the clear vision, which people buy into, luckily, and get on board with and the rest is kind of just process behind that.
Ludo Millar 20:34
I think that’s hugely important, what you’re saying, Henry. And the two things that jumped out to me really there: first, I love how transferable those skills are. You teach the values of a business to your mentors, and they then, consciously or subconsciously, they then live that with their mentees. So it’s a kind of really virtuous loop there that you’ve built. And secondly, that point about if you want to change the children, then you start with the adults. I think Julia, Founder of Qualified Tutor, talks about that a lot, and definitely taught me that in my first days working with her, that as a school, she was a change manager at her secondary school, and she said that when she realised that you start with the teachers to improve the attitudes and the achievements amongst the student body. I think that’s hugely powerful. I think other education businesses can look at that and see that as a place to aim for if they’re looking for change in their business. I would say I’ve not really seen it done better than you guys have done it at Oppidan. And so it is a very valuable line that you’ve delivered there, Henry.
Henry Faber 21:47
That’s very kind. There’s a lot of paddling beneath the surface, I can assure you it’s not been sailing on that one [LAUGHS]. And no two mentors are the same. But I really enjoy that part of that. Almost the most to be honest, I think it’s great fun.
Ludo Millar 22:01
Just on that note, in what part of the business have you done the most paddling? What has been- you’re 6 years down the line, what has been the hardest part of running Oppidan?
Henry Faber 22:14
… you want to take this one? Oh, there we go. He [Walter] tried to fire me that one sideways. [LAUGHS]
Ludo Millar 22:20
And we’ll take an ad break there. [LAUGHS]
Henry Faber 22:24
There have been lots of tricky bits to it. I would say, externally, dealing with parent expectations or changing their awareness of what they’re buying into. It’s all very well to read the website and say, ‘Oh, mentoring, that sounds great’. But to see that take shape, and to trust that, practically, that will have outcomes is quite a difficult thing. I think even for the most liberally-minded parent, that’s complicated, tracking the progress of that, qualifying its impact. So we’d say that’s been the biggest hurdle for us to scaling impact on a one-to-one capacity that we haven’t maybe struggled with in schools, and I’m sure we’ll maybe come onto schools a bit later. But on that parent side, that will be it for me. What about you, Walter?
Walter Kerr 23:10
Yeah, I mean, on that point, actually, both across B2C and B2B, you’re selling a nebulous concept, it’s often hard to measure impact, not impossible, but hard to qualify causation. Secondly, people or schools that have no time and have high expectations. And you’re not selling a product off the shelf. So it’s hard to scale. So my answer would be, comparatively, it’s easy to start a business and there’s lots of kind of noise around it when you start, it’s much harder to scale it and you run out of favours for one too. Yeah, it’s much harder to scale. So when we onboard, or when we do founders’ workshops, we talk about three stages: we talk about the startup years, the brand building years, which were glorious, a lot of the work around camps and our podcasts ourselves and some of the online work we did was great. And then now these are the scale up years. And this is the challenge ahead of us which we’re excited to tackle.
Henry Faber 24:15
And in many ways the paddling really is kind of just starting, if that makes sense, is how it certainly feels like. I said, big kids, big problems and it’s the play off between wanting to be ambitious and aggressive with growing our business and self-funding that and and keeping the team lean and you know, all those bits that are not relevant to an education business, they’re just relevant to any business. That’s definitely the bit that’s trickiest.
Ludo Millar 24:43
I think people need to hear what you’re saying, Henry, not least because this podcast serves as inspiration hopefully for small education business leaders as well as independent tutors, but also, you know, I don’t mean to undermine, but I imagine in those early years, you probably didn’t have that clarity of vision, you couldn’t have seen that bit, you know, 6 years later was gonna be the hard bit, you know, when you’re in the hubbub and the buzz of it, you think you probably, naturally, think this is gonna go on for quite some time, you know, maybe 5, 10, 15 years. And it’s only once you’ve reached 6, 7 years down the line that you can see those stages, even if some mentor tells you very early on that you’ll hit a point, it’s hard to see that happen or to envisage that.
Henry Faber 25:30
I look at big companies we admire in the education space, particularly UK-based tuition businesses or education consultancies, and I think that founder has had to make a decision at some point about what kind of a life they want to lead, and what kind of a business they want to keep running. And we are at a similar stage, I think, where there’s a lot to decide upon. And for the two of us, it’s very much this kind of broad, ambitious vision, that comes with all sorts of difficulties and stresses, too. So it’s, you know, there are different ways to run and grow your business, not one of them is right. But there comes a point where you sort of have to pin your colours to the mast a bit.
Ludo Millar 26:08
And it can be difficult when your co-founder takes 12 months off …
Henry Faber 26:15
Touché, very good. [LAUGHS] I’ll share my calendar and you can see.
Walter Kerr 26:18
The man does not sleep, put it that way.
Ludo Millar 26:21
I’m sure it hasn’t meant any less input in Oppidan. Henry, that was a brilliant little addition there, because you guys are, as you said before, and as I know, by being a mentor with you guys, are very ambitious business. And I don’t think that the education space should be afraid of words like that. I don’t think- you know, in the past, it might have been seen that for an education company to want to be ambitious, it would mean that they’re trying to extort money from the education space, which was often seen as something that wasn’t ethical or wasn’t what education should be. But I think you guys have shown that being ambitious only serves to help more students and more young people as professionals. So with that in mind, let’s say you were both given a magic wand that you could wave over the education landscape tomorrow, what are some of the ideas that you guys are hoping to see in education over the next five or 10 [years]?
Walter Kerr 27:23
I mean, I really strongly hope that Oppidan does play a role, however small, in shaping that change. That is one of our visions, or one of our goals, for sure, within the next 18 months to however long we continue with this, but the majority of our work is around transition, whether it’s transition at secondary level, transition through secondary transition to university, but most often transition at 11 or 13+ and we’re doing some interesting work with Julia Martin from ISEB around an equitable, or more equitable, way of selection at 11+. And again, lots of work being done by Rethinking Assessment around this kind of thing. But for us, we’d like to help lend advice to a skills-based assessment model at 11+, the champions, full engagement with learning that, god, reduces the impact of high stakes testing, makes Year 5 and 6 teaching for teachers more fun., looks at the whole child and the selection policy. I think a broader approach to measuring ability is really cool. And we’ve done lots of the work in schools already, primary and prep, around developing that. And that’s really fun. And that’s got huge impact going forward. And I think, we speak to secondary schools all the time. I think momentum is changing, I think we’re gonna see something soon change quite dramatically.
So that’s my magic wand. But sorry, that is our magic wand.
Henry Faber 29:08
I’m all for that. I mean, we can get, you know, much deeper into this and head up into teens and GCSEs, and all sorts of national things where I can’t see a lot of revolutionary change happening anytime soon, far more likely that it’s evolutionary, whereas I think some of that 11+, 13+ stuff, we could see some quite big changes in the next 2, 3 years. And that’s exciting and feels real and relevant. Certainly for the kids we’re working with at that age.
Walter Kerr 29:35
And yeah, that’s obviously more geared towards independent schools, but the work we’re doing with state-funded or maintained schools, a lot of it is around community pieces for peer mentors, training them to be mentors, and what started as a challenge to reduce exclusion, or the risk, has turned into more of an aspiration piece, developing ties between year groups. So that isn’t a piece of educational change, but that’s a programme that helps alleviate issues that kids face at the moment.
Ludo Millar 30:10
It was probably one of the funnest things I’ve ever done at Oppidan was working with one of the schools in London that you work with, training mentors, because I think the power of them then being able to go back into the communities that they’re part of and spreading that- not only spreading the knowledge they’ve gained, but spreading the fact that you can become a mentor, you can become an educator. And that’s something that the younger people in that community can aspire to. I think that’s a real societal change that we could see, which is driven by education, which would be really very, very beneficial.
Ludo Millar 30:52
And now, a brief word from last week’s guest, David Bell.
Unknown Speaker 30:55
It was great to be on the Qualified Tutor Podcast with Ludo last week, it really was interesting how the conversation took a turn towards mental health, and just how important that is for tutors and for the young people that they work with. I really enjoyed being a guest because we had a chance to talk about some of the things that don’t always get discussed, some of the things that don’t always get talked about, and actually raise it to the front because they are so important. And anybody thinking of going on the podcast, I would just say, go for it. It was a great opportunity to talk to somebody in the industry who really understands. Ludo’s podcast is fantastic and I would certainly recommend giving it a go.
Ludo Millar 31:42
Now, just to draw the conversation to a close because, you know, there’s only so much that our listeners can engage with, there’s been so much that you guys have detailed there. And I’m very grateful to you both for that. But on a more personal level, I’d love to know what’s next for you guys. You know, I love this podcast not just to be about the businesses that our guests run but also to be about them as individuals. So Henry, what’s next for you? What’s next for Henry Faber?
Henry Faber 32:14
I’m going to reclaim some of my life in October. [LAUGHS] Stay an hour extra each day, maybe see some friends. We are, I mean, I don’t want to make it impersonal. But I think Walter and I are so deeply tied between our lives and work every day, which we don’t see as a problem. But we’re very keen that people who come to work here can see fewer degrees of separation between their private lives and what they’re doing for work. My big piece is to try and see some of the work we’re doing in schools really take shape in a meaningful way. It’s funny, we’ve worked in schools for a couple of years, but a month ago, we had 1 person working 2 days a week supporting our schools wing and it’s currently now 6 full time people and it’s a lot of life stress because actually it’s a whole new business. It’s a startup all over again, trying to scale process around working in schools. So finding ways to problem solve that. And then yeah, personally, probably playing a bit more sport.
Ludo Millar 33:18
Meeting up with Walter on those sports pitches like all those years ago.
Henry Faber 33:23
The squash squash court these days, but yeah.
Walter Kerr 33:27
Stadt. Stadt is the full circle. Yeah. We just got into padel, Ludo, so we’re playing lots of padel at the moment, so my vision for 2023 is to get good at padel and to have an army of babies. Oppidan has an incredibly good parental leave it up. And so I’ll take full advantage of that. And yeah, scale mentoring in schools, make it a really value-added thing for schools to benefit from.
Ludo Millar 33:59
Yeah, maybe it’s the decade of racquet sports because me and my girlfriend have just got back into badminton massively. And I’d be very up for taking you guys on at padel. I’m a big, big fan.
Henry Faber 34:12
We’ll make that happen. We’ll make that happen.
Ludo Millar 34:16
Henry, Walter, thank you so much for coming onto this show. It makes me very proud that I’ve been able to host you two on this show. It’s been 126 episodes in which we’ve got to know the education industry very well. And you guys are a huge part of that in the UK. And I’m sure very soon beyond, the borders of Great Britain. So thank you very much for coming on. I hope you enjoyed talking a little bit about what you do.
Henry Faber 34:43
Thank you. Thank you for having us.
Walter Kerr 34:45
Thank you, Ludo.
Ludo Millar 34:47
Okay well, next week, we will be chatting to a lady called Liberty King about social mobility and education and a few lessons from the first year of the NTP. So please make sure that you are listening to that one as well. But for one final time, thank you very much, Walter and Henry.
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