An entrepreneur whose family owns an award-winning £29,000-a-year preparatory school is on the hunt for £1.2 million to bring a form of radical, low-cost private education to the UK from the US.

Sam Rogerson, a former media executive, is courting investors to bankroll the launch of the first Lexicon School, set to open next September in Surrey, in exchange for a 30% stake in the start-up.

Lexicon is the UK offshoot of a network of more than 185 so-called micro-schools in the US operated by Acton Academy, which offers affordable private schooling with an academic twist.

Students of Acton Academy – and, in due course, of Lexicon – dictate their own learning agendas, marshalled not by teachers but by ‘guides’, who “nurture 21st-century skills” rather than deliver subject-specific curricula culminating in standardised exams. 

With annual tuition fees of £11,600, the first Lexicon prep school in Guildford will be 30% cheaper to attend than the average Surrey independent.

Lexicon School’s model is the antithesis to Cottesmore School, which Rogerson’s family has owned since 1939 and was this month named ‘prep school of the year’ by Tatler magazine, and the £42,000-a-year Eton College he attended as a boy.

Despite Rogerson’s roots in traditional private education, he thinks the system is ultimately broken.

“The British private sector is having an identity crisis,” he told EducationInvestor Global in an exclusive interview. “It is totally inward-looking. It doesn’t welcome competition. Fees have risen without justification, while at the same time teacher-to-pupil ratios have decreased. This is unsustainable.”

For his MBA, Rogerson wrote a thesis on fee affordability in the British private school sector before “travelling the world to glean ideas from innovative educators” on how to solve what he perceived to be that market’s problems.

On his travels, he met Jeff Sandefer, founder of Acton Academy, by which he was inspired, and struck a deal to launch and run its first British network of “entrepreneurial” schools, where “capital costs are low and the culture is future-facing”.

The £1.2 million being sought by Rogerson will fund the establishment of Lexicon’s pilot school, which will cater to just 10 pupils and remain loss-making until its third year of operation, by when, Rogerson hopes, it will have 36 students and make £66,000 in profit. By year five he says, the school will have 108 students and chalk up profits of £364,000 against revenue of £1.32 million.

Negotiations are underway to acquire Lexicon’s first site, said Rogerson. By September 2025, the maiden school will be at full capacity and preparations to launch the second will begin. The following year, “further sites” will be rolled out, he added.

Rogerson has held talks with a number of private equity investors – but the project was deemed too embryonic to warrant investment from mid-market funds, which typically buy controlling stakes in profitable enterprises.

Lexicon’s business model is scalable – “schools could be sustained in every town across the UK”, said Rogerson – but enrolments, even in later growth phases, will purposely be kept low.

This is because students at maximum-capacity schools will be taught by just three guides, supported by three assistant guides, “whose job is to ask questions that help students discover their unique talents”, said Rogerson. Guides and their assistants will be adept in communicating through the Socratic method, which is designed to stimulate critical thinking and is commonplace at Ivy League colleges and top-tier universities. Lexicon’s teacher-pupil ratio will never exceed 11.6.

Lexicon’s pedagogy will be a far cry from teachers dictating slides from the front of a classroom to students hurriedly scribbling notes in textbooks or typing on iPads.

Lexicon students will spend their mornings honing ‘mastery-based core skills’, pursuing “self-generated goals” and “supporting each other to master foundational reading, writing, maths and foreign language skills”, a slide in an investor presentation states. In the afternoon, they will embark on ‘quests’, involving “real-world group and individual projects that integrate curriculum subjects”. Students “will be starting businesses, producing plays, publishing books, developing video games”, the presentation continues. Some extra-curricular activities like organised sports be outsourced, said Rogerson, to keep overheads – and in turn fees – at a minimum. Physical education, arts, and music classes will be carried out in-house.

The objective of Lexicon’s pedagogy, Rogerson explained, is to instil in students a genuine enjoyment of learning, while equipping them with “adaptable” skills that can be applied in any academic or career setting later in life.

Lexicon “won’t feel like a prep school”. Instead of quaint cottages in leafy surroundings, Lexicon’s leasehold schools with “open-plan learning labs” might utilise closed-down high street shops or vacant offices. “I want to be part of the solution to the crisis on the high street”, which has been decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Rogerson.

He sees an opportunity to onboard students “for whom traditional education” – of the private and maintained variety – “does not work”. Lexicon’s initial intake of students will likely come from the “top-20% and bottom-20%”, he said, referring to “high-functioning students who are bored of traditional schooling and those with mild special needs struggling to keep up”. Lexicon’s schools will also be a hit with the children of entrepreneurs, he reckons.

As far as Rogerson is aware, Lexicon will have “no direct competitors”. James Tooley, professor of educational entrepreneurship and policy at the University of Buckingham, in 2018 launched a “no frills, low-cost” private school in Durham charging £2,700 a year, with plans to expand across the country – but its pedagogy is vastly different to that of Lexicon.

Rogerson is unfazed by the turbulent operating conditions ushered in by the coronavirus crisis, which has already pressed more than 30 British private schools to the wall.

“We know there are people looking for educational solutions that sit between very expensive and free – those that can no longer afford the high prices, but don’t want a free education because they feel it has failed them. That’s where the opportunity lies. This is an untapped market into which we are stepping.”

Date published: 15 October 2020

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