Valenture Institute, St Stithians in ‘revolutionary’ online high school collaboration. LISTEN!

In a recent episode of Inside Investing, BizNews founder Alec Hogg spoke with Robert Paddock, chief executive of the Valenture Institute. Paddock told BizNews about the newly formed partnership with St Stithians, the prestigious school situated in Johannesburg. This new alliance will allow students to enjoy the benefits of a St Stithians education remotely, along with many other advantages. Listen to the full interview below. – Jarryd Neves

* Webinar alert: If you have school-going children (or grandchildren) please make a diary note to join BizNews founder Alec Hogg at noon (Tuesday 17 November) for answers to all those questions about high schooling in the digital age. In studio will be our partners from the disruptive Valenture Institute, founder Robert Paddock (whose previous company Getsmarter.com was sold to the world’s online education leader, Nasdaq-listed TwoU, for R1.8bn) and Valenture faculty lead Sarah Elphick. Register here: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/4850212282925182219

Robert Paddock is the founder and chief executive of Valenture Institute and we’ve been publishing this week some really good news. Fascinating news, in fact, that you are partnering with St Stithians. You didn’t perhaps go to school there? 

I didn’t. I grew up in Cape Town, so unfortunately, it was a bit of a logistical challenge without online modality to attend St Stithians in Cape Town.

But it is an interesting thing. You’d forgive me for thinking that, well, maybe if you’d been an old boy they would have seen your successes and opened the door. But clearly that isn’t the route. What happened here? How did they knock on your door? Because it’s revolutionary for South Africa, what Valenture is going to be doing with them.

We are just super excited to be partnering with St Stithians. The leadership team there is an incredibly dynamic group that’s willing to think differently, evolve with the times and provide an opportunity for more diversity, more inclusive and innovative educational offerings. Really, I think this is – at least in part – a response to the experience of many of the schools in South Africa – and indeed abroad – through the Covid crisis.

The idea that through Covid, schools were forced to engage in some sort of online modality for their students. They simultaneously found that to be immensely challenging, considering that these schools have all been set up to be brick and mortar schools with teachers who are trained for that particular modality. But simultaneously, they experience that there’s a lot of students for whom this online modality actually worked exceptionally well and that we can start to think somewhat differently and more creatively about what an alternative or additional educational offering might look like.

So we’ve actually had outreach from over 25 top schools in South Africa who’ve made inquiries with us, who have said, ‘listen, we are thinking about starting an online school. Would you consider some sort of collaboration?’ And so on. At least in our engagements, the discussions with St. Stithians, the team was incredibly progressive, and was able to understand how to set this programme up for success, how to set the partnership up for success. So we were thrilled to formalise our collaboration with them and to launch the St. Stithians online school just last week.

Wow. It really is a new world we’re going into. How is the St Stithians online school going to be different to what Valenture currently offers and what St Stithians currently offers? 

A really good question. So to compare it to what St Stithians currently offers, they have brick and mortar schools. They’ve actually got seven existing schools in the college group, where we are kind of working alongside us with their boys high school and their girls high school – who are both offering an IEB curriculum. That’s one important distinction which I’ll make in a second. But of course, the schooling is entirely physical, residential education with, I think, in addition to the incredible academics that they offer also includes really important pastoral care -It’s a Methodist ethos behind the school – a range of extracurricular sports activities, a real focus on leadership development and so on.

So these are things that in the brick and mortar school are absolutely critical to the ethos and to the reputation that’s been built for a school like St Stithians. In the online offering, we’re going to be offering a British international curriculum. This is one key area of distinction. There’s a number of students for whom the idea of perhaps actually moving towards a British international curriculum – particularly as they get closer to the key exit points, i.e., matriculation – is incredibly appealing, and St Stithians as a school is also looking to offer more diversity of curriculum to satisfy an increasingly diverse need from their student market.

The international curriculum is a key distinction. But then, of course, the online modality is a key distinction. So if you’re to attend St Stithians brick and mortar school right now, you need to live in a very close proximity to St Stithians, so you can travel to and from the school every single day and so on.

The St Stithians online school, of course, opens up a whole new world of possibilities. In this model, all of the teaching and learning is taking place entirely online. One of the benefits of working with the Valenture Institute is that this is in a purpose built online high school.

Again, in comparison to the kind of reactive approach many schools had to take in response to Covid, this has actually been purpose built from the ground up for the purposes of online education, with all the best of online technologies, online pedagogies imbued into the offering. So really, the opportunity to offer the best quality education in online modality is very specifically pronounced.

Then I think one of the really interesting things about this value proposition is that students are still able to compete in key extracurricular activities and sports. They’ve got access to their St Stithians campus for certain key extracurricular activities. They can use the mountain biking trail, they can fish, they can use the outdoor gym.

There’s a whole range of activities that are included for students. They can partake in a whole range of club sports, which is really interesting. In the world of online education, one of the regular concerns that is raised by parents is, ‘brilliant, love the curriculum, love the support mechanisms and so on. But what about sport?’

This is something that I think the St Stithians online school has a unique solution for, and for that, we’re very excited. I guess one other key point would be that in terms of increasing access, this is being offered at just over half of the price of the regular brick and mortar school fees. So I think as St Stithians seeks to make its value proposition available to a more diverse range of students, this is one way of doing that.

Robert, let’s just start with someone who lives in Johannesburg, but a long way away from Bryanston, where the school is. Say they lived in Mondeor or in the south of Johannesburg and it’s taking an hour to get to school in the mornings and back. Can they now convert into online? But perhaps if they are a hockey player, they can come in and still play for the St Stithians hockey teams?

The teams that would be playing for specifically the Crusaders. The Crusaders is a series of clubs managed by the Old Stithians – St Stithians old boys and girls. So the sports, particularly something like hockey, is very specifically with Crusaders. There’s other other key activities that are taking place on site with the same staff and so on. But the short answer is yes. Yes, they could.

They’d still be playing those Crusader sports on campus, at St Stithians and that I think is just a really exciting prospect. To be able to think differently about the nature of the commute, the amount of time that one needs to spend in traffic, when all of your academics can take place online, but perhaps you’re driving in twice, three times a week to either practice or to compete in key sports.

Twenty five schools in total – St Stithians obviously being the pioneers of this new model. How many are you likely to be able to have by the end of next year?

Not many. We’re purposely being very selective about the schools that we work with. We actually have a level of exclusivity with St Stithians for certain key regions. You can understand from both of our perspectives why that’s important.

It’s important that we both invest heavily in the partnership and ultimately in creating the most fantastic student experience. So we are not planning on launching many of these at all.

And would the teachers on the St Stithians online school be drawn from St Stithians? Would you have to go through a teaching process and perhaps they go through a learning process of how to use the Valenture back end?

Yes, there’s a combination. We are certainly allowing teachers from the St Stithians physical schools to apply and to be part of the school if they’ve got the appropriate skills. Equally, one of the things that we’re managing is, of course, we don’t want to deplete the calibre of talent that is in the existing brick and mortar schools and so on. So we are working together with the leadership team on that.

What’s important to note is that teachers, principals etc, are all ultimately approved by St. Stithians. So they’ve to pass the same hiring requirements – meet the same qualification standards, standards of experience and so on – in order to teach in the St. Stithians online school. So we are applying the same level of oversight and critique and assessments to the teaching and learning staff, as would be applied in the physical school.

I suppose it opens up all kinds of other ideas. If you are a South African living in the UK – maybe temporarily for the next few years – and you know about the reputation of St Stithians, could your children there sign up for something like this?

Absolutely. Sport and access to extracurriculars is not mandatory. We have already seen – and we only launched this last week – but there is a huge amount of interest, not just from the Johannesburg region, but we’re already seeing interest in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and a few parts of the Western Cape. It’s very interesting to see already, just the broad reach that St. Stithians has, in terms of its reputational value.

Last time we spoke, you told us about the boutiques – the one in Dunkeld, Johannesburg and Newlands, Cape Town. How has that project been going? 

The boutique campuses are going exceptionally well. In fact, we are almost at capacity for both of those, which is super exciting – just to see the resonance with what could be referred to as a blended learning model. Where all of your academics are taking place online, but you’re still coming into a physical space every single day.

You’re still getting the benefits of a rich array of social engagements, extracurriculars that are taking place on campus, adult supervision during the day, pastoral care and so much more. So certainly, we think that there’s something there that we are going to be doubling down on and investing quite heavily into the future.

So the boutiques are just about full up now. The St Stithians online school is an interesting project, as you’ve explained to us. When does that kick off? You did say it would be appealing to the pupils who are coming to the end of their careers. So what years of school do you start at?

It is from grade eight, in terms of the full high school experience up until the equivalent of one year post-matric. In the international British curriculum that we follow, we effectively take students to A-levels, which as compared to the South African system, is effectively one year post-matric. So we’re offering the full school experience and that will be on offer from January 2021.

So we are accepting expressions of interest right now. For anyone that’s interested, you can go to ststithiansonlineschool.com, and from there you can express your interest. We will be opening up applications in the next two weeks formally. But right now we’re accepting expressions of interest.

And as far as the rest of Valenture is concerned? How does that compare now? Are you not worried that those who would have just signed up as per normal with Valenture Institute for next year are now going to want to be associated with a school? 

Yes, and I think that for us is part of the entrepreneurial journey. I tend to have what could be referred to as an abundance mindset. I believe there’s a huge amount of opportunity and the real job of entrepreneurs is to go out and to create that opportunity. For me, the idea that we lose some students on the Valenture core is certainly not the concern. I’m looking to create more value for students specifically. My belief is that if that’s your focus, you really can’t go wrong long-term.

And Valenture core – as you name it – is that also now open for those signing up for next year?

It is indeed. Students and parents who are interested can go on to valentureinstitute.com and they can see a range of offerings. Our next intake will be in January 2021. A whole range of subjects, qualification levels, sustainable development goal labs – really interesting stuff on offer. So please do go check that out.

And also with the British curriculum? Or do they follow a different one?

Also with the British curriculum. But we’ve got some exciting things in the works for a local South African curriculum as well.

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* If you have school-going children (or grandchildren) please make a diary note to join BizNews founder Alec Hogg at noon (Tuesday 17 November) for answers to all those questions about high schooling in the digital age. In studio will be our partners from the disruptive Valenture Institute, founder Robert Paddock (whose previous company Getsmarter.com was sold to the world’s online education leader, Nasdaq-listed TwoU, for R1.8bn) and Valenture faculty lead Sarah Elphick. Register here: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/4850212282925182219

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