Herts for Learning Ltd is a School Company. This is a specific vehicle that can be used by local authorities to spin out services previously provided by the education department into an independent social enterprise. Herts for Learning is jointly owned by schools in Hertfordshire (80.5%) and the County Council (19.5%). The social purpose of the business is:
“That every young person, through access to a great education, should be able to realise their potential, regardless of where they live or their circumstances.”
In practice this means providing a wide range of support to state schools, academies and ‘education settings’ (which mainly means pre-school providers) educating children from 0-18. They work with 99% of schools in Hertfordshire.
Herts for Learning was set up in 2013 and provides a range of services from business support such as IT and training school governors to working directly with school leaders and teachers to help improve their performance and the education that children receive.
Being a social enterprise is important to their offer to schools. They are competing against commercial providers but the Managing Director says that no one else offers the range of services that they do and being a social enterprise enables them to keep their prices down and be affordable to schools because they are non-profit distributing. They are driven by their social purpose, not profit.
Andrew de Csilléry is the Managing Director and came from a commercial background, taking over after the company was formed. He sees his role as being to change the culture of the organisation from that of a public sector department to a social enterprise operating with a commercial mindset. Herts for Learning employs 310 people directly and another 170 on a consultancy basis. The original staff team was transferred to the social enterprise but only about a third of them are still employed today. Although many of the new staff who have been recruited have previously worked in the public sector they have specifically come to work for the social enterprise and Andrew says that has made a big difference.
“I’ve worked all over the world but this has been the biggest challenge – getting people to feel comfortable with having a moral purpose but operating like a viable commercial enterprise that is customer focused. People need to understand that they can’t stay for an extra two hours because the schools needs it – another school might need help more. It’s a tough challenge but we need to maintain our business.”
Andrew doesn’t use the term social enterprise to describe the business for people and he makes sure to use the term ‘non-profit distributing’ (rather than not-for-profit). The turnover of the business last year was £21.7 million with profits of £119,000. Their target is to earn and re-invest 1% of their turnover into the business. Andrew says that this is an important part of the business philosophy. Their Corporate Social Responsibility agenda means that they have recently adopted a target to reduce their paper consumption by 90%. “We use a lot of paper but we asked ourselves ‘what is our place in the community?’” The cost savings of this initiative would achieve their target surplus alone, as well as the environmental benefits. They are also looking at how they use technology to reduce their overall environmental footprint.
Despite his traditional business background, Andrew clearly embraces the social enterprise model and the vision of providing the best education possible for children and young people in Hertfordshire.
“Personally, [the most rewarding thing is] leading an organisation that’s making a difference to schools across Hertfordshire and further afield – helping schools to provide a better education for all children, reducing the gap in outcomes between children and helping the more disadvantaged. We can and do make a difference– it’s very rewarding. Also how do you inspire people to make that change? Taking a flexible and entrepreneurial approach but remaining true to our moral purpose. That is very satisfying when it comes together and allows us to help more schools”