We talked to Alice Lacey of now>press>play on how they are making the curriculum accessible and engaging for children of all academic ability and socio-economic background.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Alice Lacey: I’m doing alright. I’m lucky in that I haven’t known anyone who has died from Covid, and apart from a few friends who got it at the beginning, the majority of my family and friends are well and healthy. I miss people and hugs, but then again, I think everyone does!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded now>press>play.
Alice Lacey: I’m the CEO and co-founder of now>press>play, an education social enterprise which provides primary schools with an immersive audio resource. Our mission is to make the curriculum accessible and engaging for children of all academic ability and socio-economic background.
Before setting up now>press>play, I was working as a theatre director and exploring new ways to tell stories. I’d come across wireless headphone technology at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008, and developed the idea of using these headphones to create stories that the listener, or audience, would be a part. I took this embryonic idea to two of my friends from university, Louis Brooke and Oscar Wood, and Oscar, who is a teacher, immediately suggested we try this idea with children. We started developing curriculum-based stories delivered through wireless headphones and trialling them in primary schools in Tower Hamlets, and the response from the children and teachers was incredible. At the end of our first pilot, which was utterly chaotic, the teacher said to us ‘I have never seen my class concentrate or listen so well.’ It was at that point that we knew we had a fascinating product.
How does now>press>play innovate?
Alice Lacey: We have developed a new way of learning using a combination of wireless headphone technology, story, sound and movement.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Alice Lacey: During the first lockdown, schools were closed so we could no longer visit our customers and run demos and training sessions as we usually did. We furloughed our Account Management team (who works directly with our schools) and kept operating on a skeleton staff. We were able to make some of our content available for children to use at home, which was extremely rewarding. It was so gratifying to be able to help schools and families at such a difficult time.
Since schools have reopened, we’ve had a lot of traction. Schools are desperately looking for ways to stimulate their children at a time when they aren’t able to go on school trips, and they are coming to us as an alternative. We’ve also become much more efficient in the way we are working with schools. In pre-pandemic times, we did all our account management and training sessions in person, with our team spending much of their time on the road. Now schools are open to doing everything through video conferencing, so our team can achieve a lot more.
It feels strange to be doing so well at a time when so many businesses are struggling. Where other firms are making redundancies, we are hiring. We’ve worked on this business for over ten years, and we are helping children in some of the most deprived areas to engage in learning. It’s not like we are a business set up to cynically take advantage of the pandemic, although there is no doubt that we are benefitting from some of the consequences of Covid.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Alice Lacey: We were fortunate that we were able to keep all of our team on and didn’t have to make any redundancies. We’ve learnt how much of our business can be done on Zoom!
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Alice Lacey: We are very open at work about how we are feeling, and I find this very helpful. Being able to tell a colleague, ‘I’m feeling really stressed at the moment’ helps to take the edge off it. Otherwise, I try to keep strict work hours (hard when you are working from home!) and enough sleep. I don’t do as much exercise as I’d like, although I try to do yoga 2-3 times a week.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Alice Lacey: Whilst there isn’t anyone who has a product exactly like ours, the reality is that we are competing with anyone selling a learning resource to a primary school. The fact that we are a tech product that isn’t screen-based, and gets children moving, helps us to stand out from the crowd. Otherwise, we plan to stay in the game by continually creating high-quality audio resources and providing schools with excellent customer service.
Your final thoughts?
Alice Lacey: This year has been a real rollercoaster, but anyone working with schools has the advantage of knowing that their customers will still exist in one, two, ten years. Not all businesses can say that.
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