Q&A with Chris Ratcliffe, BESA’s new Chairman

Thursday 1 December’s BESA Executive Council meeting was the first to be chaired by Chris Ratcliffe, Sales Director at Scholastic Education, who was elected to the role last month. In a special Q&A, Chris introduces himself and what he plans to achieve in his new role.

1. Can you tell us about Scholastic Education and your role at the company?

Scholastic Education is an education publisher. We’ve been publishing teacher resources for primary teachers since the early 1980s, and have very much been seen as a curriculum publisher. In the last few years, we’ve expanded our areas of expertise and now have a wide range of resources for primary and secondary teachers from the traditional teacher resource, to reading schemes, assessment materials, home learning revision guides and practice books and online reading resources. I’m the Sales Director, I work with my sales team to sell our resources into schools and trade customers. I work closely with the publishing team and marketing department to make sure we’ve got the right resources at the right time and have pulled out all the right messages when talking to schools through direct mail and exhibitions.

2.  You have spent 15 years working in education, what attracts you about the sector?

I worked in the construction industry, manufacturing, and even Formula 1 before moving to education publishing. Education is a great place to work – certainly the friendliest. Generally speaking, I talk to teachers, headteachers, other publishers and suppliers that have one joint vision: to help teachers teach and to help children learn. All of the other industries I’ve worked in combined don’t come close to giving me the buzz that working with a school to solve a problem they have does. That email or phone call you get from a teacher you’ve been working with to say that “it is working” is fantastic.

3. If you were to give Education Secretary Justine Greening one piece of advice, what would it be?

Thinking about the education system, I’d suggest that Justine visits as many schools as possible and have one-to-one conversations with headteachers and teachers to understand the challenges that schools face. As a supplier to schools, I’d like the DFE to engage with us – the education suppliers and publishing industries produce truly best-in-class resources and it would be beneficial for the DfE to work more closely with us in a shared aim of delivering the best resources to support teachers.

4.  What do you think are the major obstacles that the UK education system faces at the moment?

There are some huge pressures on schools at the moment: changes to school structures, recruitment and retention of teachers, budget cuts, and changes to curriculum and assessment. We all have a part to play in listening to schools and teachers to understand how best to support them, but proper funding of schools is probably the most critical factor in changing the dial for schools already considering things like a four-day week.

5. We will shortly be running an event on “reasons to be cheerful about education” – can you give us one?

There is a lot more collaboration between schools than there has been before, and not just within MATs, but through loose alliances and informal conversations, which from a supplier that has resources that work in schools and are liked is a really positive thing. Tapping into those conversations can be really beneficial.

6. BESA’s barometer for the suppliers’ market currently suggests a downturn. What one piece of advice would you offer companies, based on your experience?

I’d suggest that you never think about schools as customers. We don’t at Scholastic Education. Instead think of them as partners. If you go into a school to sell a widget, you may sell the widget, but that’s as far as it’ll go. Work closely with the school to find out exactly what they need. Have the confidence in your resource to know when you have the thing that will help, and indeed to tell a school that you can’t help if you have the wrong thing. If you do sell your resource to the school, keep in touch, offer training, work with the school to embed it in the school and ensure they are as happy as they can be. The rest will take care of itself.

7. Bett’s theme next year is “Game Changers”. Tell us about something – or someone – in the industry that has changed the game for you.

I think social media has been a huge game changer. It has allowed suppliers and teachers to talk to each other in ways we wouldn’t have been able to before. I have a huge network of wonderful people from all sorts of different walks of life that I can talk to if I have a question or an idea. It has led to some wonderful experiences, such as working with teachers to start the first Teach Meet Takeover at BETT when we were still at Olympia. I’ve made some very firm friends. However, Twitter can sometimes lead to confirmation bias, and therefore I make sure that I temper my ideas and enthusiasm by talking to “real” teachers at least once a week.

8. You have been a member of BESA’s Executive Council for five years. Based on your experience, why do you think BESA has an important role to play?

BESA is very important to the work that I do at Scholastic and there are many aspects of BESA that I’d recommend. An important role BESA does play is in talking to government departments and putting across the concerns of members. The increasingly impressive range of seminars and training opportunities are fantastic. That, combined with market reports, research (including the most recent – and wonderful – research into MATs) and market intelligence is something that would cost a small fortune if you were to purchase it commercially. I love the networking, meeting fellow suppliers out of the context of their own business helps to understand them and the relaxed atmosphere can open up opportunities that neither party would have had before.  Finally, we’re seeing financial pressures at home, but the education system in the UK is admired around the world, so the work of BESA to showcase British suppliers abroad is key.

9. As chair of BESA, what would you like to achieve over the next year?

Raising the profile of BESA members with teachers, schools, associations and unions is important. Working with our members and partners to put a collective understanding of the market to government is also crucial if we are to improve standards in schools. Most importantly, in a world of change, I think it is important that we support the secretariat to embed a lot of the really impressive work they’ve put in place this year.

10. Tell us something about yourself that has nothing to do with education!

Other than my appalling dress sense, and even worse golf game you mean? I have a very long fuse, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve got really angry. This, combined with a relentless optimism and an outwardly relaxed demeanour, can sometimes be frustrating for others – especially my family!