Welcome to this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast, and a big welcome to Dani Okumura and Charlotte Badenoch, who are the Founders of Bright Light Education. Now just as a little introduction to Dani and Charlotte and to Bright Light. They do things a little bit differently to your standard tuition agency, leading with their range of online courses for students, they also offer alongside that one to one private tuition. And this all-in-one support package complemented by this targeted tutoring is hugely successful and allows the students to learn alongside others in an environment which brings together the best of the teaching and tutoring worlds.
Now today we will be discussing Dani and Charlotte’s journey to where they are now, including a hopefully important discussion about the current state of the English curriculum, and what their vision for the future is and how they came to grow this tutoring business from just two to around 30 tutors in just a couple of years. So, welcome guys! Thank you very much for joining us.[Dani]Thank you for having us.[Charlotte]
Thank you, Ludo.[Ludo]
It’s a real privilege to have you guys on, and thank you very much Dani, for joining us from Japan. I hope that’s not going to be too much of an issue today(?)[Dani]No, it’s amazing. We can have these Zoom sessions in two different time zones.[Ludo]
I think if you two are able to run an entire business from the UK and Japan, I think we can probably do a single podcast … So, I think we’ll dive right into the first question, and I’ll let either if you dive in first here but that question is: what is your why as tutors?[Dani]
I think, for me, the journey and my tutor journey started when I was teaching in a school and I’d been teaching a particular boy French for a number of years. And he had this- he was dyslexic and French was a subject that really wasn’t his favourite subject. And so he got three to six and that day, I was saying goodbye to him at the door, his mom said to me, ‘Would you be able to carry on, please? As he goes into secondary school, could you carry on teaching him French?’. And so of course I agreed and he was my first tutee really so I started and I carried on throughout his secondary school education, until he took his GCSE. And, you know, really finding- I guess finding ways in which to tailor my lessons to him, to find ways in which to make him feel inspired to learn and to actually enjoy learning French which was amazing that he did in the end and I remember the day he phoned me, the day he got his GCSE results and he said, ‘Guess what? I got an A’, and it was just amazing. It was the most amazing feeling. And then, you know, I think it enabled him to go to the sixth form college of his choice. It enabled him to have a scholarship, to play football in America for a year so it was just this- amazing results, and I guess since then, Charlotte and I have had multiple stories like this along the way and for us I guess that’s why we tutor. It’s why we love what we’re doing. It’s why we believe in our company, we believe in our business, we believe in supporting our clients, and candidates[Charlotte]
Yeah, I mean to- to follow on from what Danny said, I think one of the ways I struggled quite a bit with Maths at secondary school. And it wasn’t until my parents organised the tutor for me that I realised, I actually could do it. I just didn’t have that belief that I could do it. And once that confidence grew, I was away and absolutely fine. But I think you need that, that one to one or that small group dynamic to find that confidence inside a child and I guess that you know, that’s how we see tuition. It’s about that building of confidence in a child that they realise that they know they can do it.[Ludo]
Yeah, I think that’s so clearly the forefront of this development that I’ve seen over the years. I’ve been tutoring from specific- we can help this child get from a B to an A*. And that’s what we do and after the end of the exam, we’ll say goodbye to this kind of slightly longer term. You know what is it that helps children learn. Is it someone who’s just going to beast them for two months to get them in an A*? Is it someone who’s going to inspire a slightly longer term enjoyment of learning? So that’s amazing to hear- as you’re wise and that’s clearly not just marketing puff. That’s clearly something that’s helped build the foundations of your business. So, off the back of that really, how did you guys come to work in the the kind of the 11+, SATs field? There are so many areas that you could target, why this one?[Charlotte]
Yeah, well I guess it’s more 11+ than SATs, although you know we do occasionally have SATs inquiries but I guess it started from us both having taught inYear 5 and 6. But I guess it started from us both having taught in Year 5 and 6. We both taught at an independent school where we worked, and all while the majority of children were preparing for their 11+ exams. So we’ve had that experience within a school, helping them prepare for these exams. We’ve helped give parents advice on schools, helped them with the exams themselves. And I guess t’s grown from there really; Dani and I both attended independent London schools as well so we’ve been through the 11+, well quite a while ago now, but yeah- having the experiences, you know, it helps. And now it’s come down to the demand for 11+ tutors. I’m sure Lud0, you know well the 11+, how incredibly competitive it is. And, you know, the majority of children are treated for it, whether it be for grammar schools or independent schools. So, mostly I’d say, most of our inquiries are for children taking 11+ exams. So, you know, for these reasons we’ve ensured that we’ve been able to cater for these inquiries.[Dani]I think, you know, on top of that, we’ve talked about this already before but we both feel really strongly about making sure that a child is not under pressure when they’re being tutored but actually feeling inspired and actually enjoying the process of learning, and we worry about the parents who are forcing the child to learn hours upon hours every day. It’s counterproductive. It’s not good for the mental health, and so we do work really hard to make sure that the process is enjoyable. And the children come out of it feeling really confident that it’s not just about the 11+ but it’s about their future that they feel well equipped for secondary school.[Ludo]
And how has that changed, over the pandemic? How have you seen that children are either more, or perhaps less, equipped for this process?[Dani]
I feel as though the divide has grown because you had people during the lockdown where they could get a tutor every single day and then other children who weren’t accessing school at all so the- what’s good is that the 11+ process has changed, and they are trying to make the exam slightly better for children, you know, there’s one exam that caters for several schools. So yeah, it has been hard I think during the pandemic.[Ludo]Yeah, I think that it’s impossible not to have been affected by what happened and I imagine that’s a little bit more about where I imagined the development of your courses were greatly accelerated by this move to online learning. I wanted to ask at the end a little bit more about your courses but it seems a good time to talk about how those developed and and please you know take this as a platform to market what you guys have. Don’t be afraid there! But yeah how have you seen the approach to course-led learning change since last March?[Charlotte]
I mean, Covid, you know, opened up the online world. Before, we had one tutor who used to teach online and we struggled to get her work. So, bringing everything online really did help so we offer creative writing courses all the way up to Year 6. And again we used to run these courses in person. And it was just, you know, a struggle to find the venues to fill the spaces. But when Covid hit, we just took them online and haven’t really looked back really because the online lessons just work brilliantly. So we’ve been really pleased with that. I think with only six children in each session, there’s a really high level of interaction between the tutor and each child which does allow for great progress for each of those children. And I think a lot of courses have lots of children in them with particularly these online ones, some of them have hundreds of children attending, and there’s no real direct feedback. So it doesn’t allow for that progress that we see. And also we encourage the children to send in their homework or the work that they’ve written to the tutor after each lesson so it allows for that individual feedback, so that they can edit and proofread their work. And now, being online, it’s just opened up, obviously, the marketplace for us. We’ve got children joining from India, Hong Kong, I’ve got children from Dubai in my class at the moment. So it’s brilliant, it’s really really lovely to be, you know, to reach out to those people.[Dani]
Yeah and I would like to add a bit of a plug but we did an annual review a couple of months ago, where we contacted all of our clients to get some feedback and we had 100% of clients said that they were ‘very satisfied’ with our courses, and, you know, it just made us yeah- you know we’re doing it, we monitor it, we wanted to collect the feedback as we go along to make sure that everybody’s happy. So we do everything to make sure that the course is helping and benefiting each individual child, and it’s going well.[Ludo]It sounds like it is. 100% is about as good as it gets. So, you’ve just touched on something there that is a really important part of developing a business which is obviously this- you’ve always embedded into your process, your approach with parents, understanding feedback, making sure that the client is happy with what you do, and there’s just something that you and I spoke about, Charlotte, when we spoke last week, you know, the journey that you’ve had with Bright Light Education has taught you an enormous amount about business and and you mentioned there that you did an annual review. That might be something that’s quite novel to someone running a tutoring business and did you feel that you were always able to embed these best practices from the very early days of Bright Light or have you found that that’s come with the higher rate of business, the high number of tutors?[Charlotte]It’s been- it’s definitely been a learning experience for us. Yeah, at the beginning as Dani said earlier, it was more sort of on demand thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve got these people now, we’ve got to run this course’. Whereas now, it’s very different, you know we have waiting lists for our courses now. I think the monitoring and the feedback was something that came up, I think, um, yeah we just decided that we wanted, you know, we want everyone to be happy, we want everyone to benefit from our courses and that’s the key to it and we realised actually that we need to be doing these evaluations, to find out if everyone is happy. After the first session of each of our courses, I call every single parent to speak to them and get their individual feedback on the course. And it’s helped usually to grow our business because we’ve been able to get that feedback and go, ‘Oh actually, maybe we should tweak this or change this, or you know make this work better’. And so we’ve continued to tweak and and improve each of our courses so it’s been really, really helpful.[Ludo]Yeah, I think perhaps in another conversation I wanted this podcast to be more about what you guys spoke about when we first discussed this in terms of the curriculum and the approach to tutoring and how the pandemic has changed things, I think there’s a whole other podcast about you two as business leaders, and how and what you’ve learned about that. Look at me just just setting up Part 2. [LAUGHS][Charlotte]I’ve never been described as a business leader before so that’s nice! [LAUGHS][Ludo]
I can’t think of another word that describes what you do at Bright Light Education. So, shifting back towards the curriculum, back towards the pedagogy, you mentioned when we initially made contacts that you have a strong belief in how English and the English curriculum should be taught, should be accessed by students. Can you give us a little bit more of an insight into what your approaches to how English should be taught in today’s industry, today’s society?[Dani]
I think, you know, I had been tutoring several children supporting them with their English skills over you know- if it was they were Year 4, Year 3 perhaps, and really developing their writing skills, and then suddenly the parents say, ‘Oh, I think you should do some SATs practice’. So I was like, ‘Okay fine’. So you know the writing was completely pushed to the side. And what I was then having to do was to teach children about determiners and about possessive pronouns and about subordinating conjunctions, and all of these things which I really felt that the children didn’t need to know. Some of them went onto secondary school and they said, ‘Guess what? We don’t need to know about determiners at school’ and they said, ‘Guess what? We don’t need to know about determiners’. It was a waste of time and I do feel quite strongly that. There’s been this shift to dividing up English into these different categories when actually, if you teach English through creative writing, then it’s magical because you’re, without the children knowing it, you’re teaching them grammar skills, you’re teaching them to write in the correct tense, you’re teaching them new vocabulary but it’s all done in this really enjoyable way of, ‘Let’s write a story. Let’s feel excited. We’re going to be authors and I’m going to teach you the skills of how to become an author’. And so that kind of, I guess, that inspired us to write our Creative Writing Skills book, where we teach children the skills for writing. And also, you know how to bring it all together to write a story and it’s that step-by-step guide to creative writing. And so that’s how I would personally- I think Charlotte and I would love English to be taught through creative writing rather than this focus on grammar and dividing up the English into different categories.[Ludo]So this book, is it available on Amazon?[Charlotte]This is it available on Amazon. Yes, Creative Writing Skills. It’s a guide and workbook in one. And so it helps parents, as well as- it’s got lovely activities for the children to get involved in. We’ve got a UK edition on .co.uk and then we’ve actually just brought out our US addition as well.[Ludo]
So, how does that study- how does that link, what you’ve just been saying that, how does that link to today’s curriculum in English? What is it that- if this has to be an approach to the DfE, in what ways can we alter the English curriculum in today’s mainstream education to factor that in with what you’ve been saying?[Dani]
Just I think that there needs to be this change, so that it’s not ‘Friday is the free write day and Monday is the grammar day’, and that it’s ‘children are reading books’. I would love for schools to actually encourage children to read and love reading, and you can then do tasks based on reading. So, you know, if schools are starting to do this, where they read a book for their half term and they do writing tasks based on it. You can do gram mar activities based on this creative writing, based on reading. So, yeah, that’s what I would pitch to them, the DfE, would be to say, ‘We need to change- we need to perhaps scrap SATs, perhaps. I do sometimes see value in these exams, but I don’t see the value in the grammar, the obsession with this grammar and the terminology there. So yeah, having more of a focus on writing and reading. That would be my push really.[Ludo]
I don’t think that’s too much of a jump really, is it. Do you see that in the curricula of other countries? In your experience, have you seen how it differs?[Dani]It’s quite interesting being in Japan. I’m constantly learning from my son and how he’s learning and he does have to write a kind of diary every week. But there’s no creative writing here either. That’s my next plan is to try to bring creative writing to the Japanese education as well. They do a lot of other creative things within the education system so I see a lot more creativity, and they don’t have History lessons, Geography lessons. They have more like nature lessons and world lessons. And so I do see a lot more creativity in the primary system over here, but I do need to work on there, definitely.[Charlotte]You know, we need your Japanese version.[Dani]Well I know it’s on the list. Charlotte, I haven’t mentioned this yet, I’m redesigning the Japanese, English curriculum.[Ludo]
It would be great to hear more about what’s coming next for Bright Light Education? Perhaps you’ve just been discussing it there but what’s kind of on the roadmap for the next couple of couple of years?[Charlotte]I mean, we’ve got so many plans as I just said but there’s not enough hours in the day to get through them as you’d like to, but we’ve got a phonics book coming out for the early years, which we’re really excited about. Both of us have experienced teaching reception and the little ones, and hopefully by the end of this year, that will be out and plans for a comprehension book, and other creative writing books, more courses. Yeah, the list goes on.[Ludo]Yeah so, just briefly before we finish, what kind of courses can parents and students expect to find as part of your package?[Dani]
So we have these creative writing courses that I mentioned earlier from Year 3 all the way up to Year 6. But we also offer a lot of other 11+ preparation courses, including a comprehension course, and an interview practice workshop as well. I’m getting those children ready for those interviews sort of December/January time. And again, these are all online with a maximum of six children so we still have that interaction between each tutor and child. And finally, we’ve got these homeschooling classes that have grown massively over the last six months, I guess, which are English skills courses classes to homeschooled children so they happen in the daytime rather than after school. And yeah, they work really well so yeah, lots going on.[Ludo]Yeah, it sounds like a pretty exciting time to be part of this and actually to finish here, I’d love you guys to let us know, to let listeners know: what message do you have for a tutor listening to this now interested in joining Bright Light?[Charlotte]I mean, all our tutors are self employed, so they have that freedom themselves, but we still offer a really personal experience, you know, we’re always at the end of the phone, whether it be over messages or calls or through our WhatsApp groups. And so we’ve often got tutors messaging us about 11+ tutoring or dealing with certain clients’ expectations. So, we love that we can help in that way.
We’re teachers, we’re tutors, but we’re also mothers and we have lots of other tutors that are mothers as well so it’s nice to be able to understand that juggle and I think lots of tutors relate to the difficulties that that sometimes brings. And I guess slightly blowing our own trumpets here but we are lovely people.We’re nice, we’re approachable and personable. We’re always there for a tutor if they need that help. So they’ve got lots of support from us when they need it. We’ve had some lovely feedback recently from a couple of our tutors who have moved on for, you know, different reasons but they’ve just been so appreciative of all the support they’ve had over the years, and most of our tutors stay with us for years as well.[Ludo]Wonderful. Well that’s- I mean, retention is such a good sign, such a good positive sign for a tutoring business so absolutely, I mean you’re teachers, you’re tutors, you’re mothers, you’re … business leaders. We need to keep saying that today. I don’t know how we uncovered that but hey ..
Thank you so much, both of you, Dani and Charlotte for joining us today. I hope you enjoyed talking about your own business. Podcast listeners may not be able to see the very bright, smiling faces that I’m seeing right now but I guess that’s a reflection of the company’s name so thank you so much, both of you.[Dani]
Thank you so much for having us on our first podcast as well.[Ludo]Yeah, your first of, I imagine, many after hearing that, The podcast requests will come streaming in after this one. And to anyone listening, brightlighteducation.co.uk is your next step.