Long years as an observer of information and media marketplaces have underlined one critical finding: whenever you hear someone say they will never sell an asset, you should be thinking about the circumstances under which they will sell it. I have long applied this thinking to Pearson, or at least since the early days of Marjorie Scardino, since she was so evidently pursuing the meatstore strategy for portfolio decomposition. Under this strategy you first detect the core strategy, in this case the pursuit of education markets globally, and then subordinate the other holdings to that strategy, only investing in non-core where you wanted to ensure that asset values were maintained. Then, every time you needed to make a strategic acquisition, you reached into the meatstore and sold a non-core unit, allowing strategic expansion without heavy debt and encumbrance.

This strategy has moved Pearson from being a collection of brands inherited by Scardino from the family of Lord Cowdray into the largest global force in education markets. It has brilliantly funded strategic purchases like Wall Street English. It has enabled the move from education content to services and now to solutions. It will yet see Pearson emerge as a major global force in online schools and institutions as well as accreditation and content: in a networked world it will be possible to be both a solution, and a supplier to competitor solutions, and a traditional service supplier as markets mature at different speeds and distance or location become less important than measurable quality in educational outputs.

Yet, for all its size, Pearson is still a small player in a large marketplace. And the market is still not fully networked or global, but slow, conservative and locally prone to government spending reduction or cultural differentiation. The downturn in the US disrupted Pearson’s banker market at a time when investment in rest of world markets was the key focus, and slow recovery at a time when governments are getting wise to how to leverage outsourcing, especially in testing and assessment markets, has affected growth and reduced margins. For the first time it may be possible to say that Pearson is shedding non-core assets not to buy strategic positioning but to buy time to allow growth strategies to unfold. This is a new take on the meatstore strategy.

In one real sense the sale of the Financial Times to Nikkei and the currently projected sale of the Economist Group must be good news for all involved. While the Economist had always been managerially independent, the FT had the potential to be a distraction, both in terms of investment needs and managerial time. And the FT, one of the few newspaper groups in the world worth buying, like the Economist, is in part a truly consumer-facing venture. As Pearson has found as it moves into consumer end-user educational markets, the business of selling to consumers is different from institutions. And managing operations that do both is difficult. And indeed structuring the management reporting lines of global consumer/institutional sales and marketing alongside the need for both vertical and global IT strategies is a taxing one. Clearly the two major information corporations who drew on Deloittes in recent years to create global matrix management schema are only in the very earliest stages of getting this right. Increasingly managing process and change is becoming as great a disruptor as technology or markets.

And it could be argued as well that under Pearson’s management the Financial Times has accomplished the huge transition that was required of it, and emerged as a digitally-led business. OK, it’s not a very big nor a very profitable business, but the world must get used to digital information businesses being smaller, and taking time to build margins. Dropping costly print would help, of course. And in the age of automated journalism it may be over-manned, but in that case it has gone to the right home in privately-held, hugely over-manned Nikkei, who will have the patience to see the job through while respecting the tradition. As a bid to move Nikkei off its domestic Japanese base into global markets the move carries less conviction since this is a trick which few Japanese information businesses have managed, but it may be that this is an opportunity for FT management to continue their global brand building in a market where Dow Jones seems to offer less competition than it did in pre-Murdoch days.

Back at Pearsons too, the ball is clearly at management’s feet, since they cannot plead lack of resources once they have completed the disposal of the FT and the Economist, and only have their minority position in Random House Penguin left in the meatstore (though arguably that deal could not have been done without the retention of that stake, so this may not be an active asset for the time being). Can they find an answer to ongoing tests market issues in the now hugely competitive US market (note the sale of the service side of California Test Bureau by McGraw-Hill Education this month). Can they sort the growth prospects in Latin America and make sense of those difficult trading economies? Can they re-align western Europe and exploit the private education potential there? Can they still grow rapidly in China while getting into smartphone dominated markets in India and elsewhere in the region? And all this at speed, using English language learning as a spearhead but not as the sole destination? Well, they have the management talent, though they may not yet have the configuration to make it gel. And they have the technology, though they need to be able to concentrate it on uniform platforms that allow rapid new product iteration. And now, sans FT, they have removed the distractions. The next year is thus critical.

Forgive the fury of a man typing while lying on his back. This is the first outing of this mind since an operation on my spine to correct a slipped disc. As in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the recovering patient could well be a cockroach, and may be better off as one in a country whose school minister lauds a deeply undistinguished contribution to the debate on improving educational standards from Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment (http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/181744-why-textbooks-count-tim-oates.pdf). A key argument here is that the absence of “approved” textbooks has diminished UK performance, compared with educational superpowers like Finland and Singapore. Mr Oates makes it clear that his romantic preference is for paper-based resources, and that his attachments are to the world of Nuffield Science and Scottish Maths (SMP), foundation and government funded projects of the 1970s in the UK. British teachers are using too wide a diversity of methods, use their own materials and exchange materials between themselves in ways that make for an undisciplined approach to gaining the outcomes desired by Mr Oakes high stakes testing and the Ministers’ national aspiration for PISA performance.

We have to put up with a lot of this Old and New Fogyism in the UK. I was an educational textbook publisher myself in the 1970s, when the champion of the art of facing backward while walking forward was Sir Rhodes Boyson, then headmaster of Highbury Grove Comprehensive in North London, and later himself a Conservative Party Schools Minister no more effective than his current successors. I wrote to him and visited the school. He explained how the re-introduction of Latin and Greek, as well as demanding that academic staff wear their gowns while teaching, were instrumental in bringing back traditional British public school (private sector) values to public sector schools like this one.After lunch one-on-one in his private dining room I was invited to tour the school with a prefect. Sadly the Latin class had only two pupils, and no one at all showed up for Greek, but I did find myself eventually in the Craft and Design centre. Here, unmentioned by my host, was a powerhouse. Working with the London jewellery markets, a brilliant teacher had created a pupil driven skill development programme which resulted in outwork and, for many, apprenticeships in the jewellery companies, who, alongside grateful parents, had endowed the school handsomely with the resources needed to do the job. The Craft teacher had been there long before his headmaster and did not relish fame: he was committed to education, and to getting his kids what they needed to be successful in life. And as a publisher I was committed to identifying good practice and spreading it around. So we shook on a publishing deal that afternoon and the four book series published as a result was very successful.

So these things are seldom what they seem to be. While mulling on these issues I heard an earlier occupier of the education ministry in the current government, Michael Gove, telling the media what he had done to improve Britain’s teaching stock. Do you realise, he said, that one in eight teachers have a first class degree and over a third have a two: one, and it is getting better every year? And it is this better-qualified workforce who are to be given a standardised, government- approved textbook by Mr Oates? Amazingly, neither Mr Oates nor Mr Gove dwelt on the critical bedevillment factor that needs to be considered before we begin to think about reintroducing paper textbooks. Class size. Pressure on UK state schools is now such that the numbers of students in class is rising, not falling. The inability to cover all bases means that, using traditional methods, it is difficult for the very best qualified teachers to do more than work on the brightest and the most troubled, because these are the noisiest and the most problematical. In the middle of a class of 35 an average pupil can sleep for five years, unchallenged and under-extended. The textbook is the proven route to making this happen.

So what to do? I was delighted to see both the British Equipment Supplies Association and the Publishers Association come out against the Oates paper. They are rightly afraid of any diminution of the traditional right of teachers in the UK to have unfettered freedom of choice in the selection of materials that they use to secure the outcomes that they were employed to achieve. The Oates paper is fragile. It generalises from science and maths to the whole curriculum. Its prejudice against screen-based learning as anything but a support mechanism is palpable. The publishing community is right to condemn it, but urgently needs to go beyond it by abolishing some of its own Fogyism. Let’s make a bonfire of blended learning and all those other halfway houses where we have sought to slowly introduce change at a pace that we think teachers (or ourselves?) can manage. Now is the time for full blooded screen based personalised learning. We have to teach individuals, not classes. The teaching role, as mentor and organized, is vital, but learners must learn at their own speed.we are not educating people for a world of print anymore. We have to raise a generation of collaborative, problem solving screen-based workers capable, as change grows more rapid, of continuous and self-learning. Mr Oates, the Minister, the trade bodies and everyone else should really be asking where the partnerships are between Britain’s great publishers, world-leading software players, educational data analytics specialists, educational institutions and high quality teachers who are going to sort this out. At the moment we see a competition of domestic minnows each trying to live in a version of their own past. We are in danger of letting down a generation of learners.

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