Schools need to give students more freedom to develop their own applications and hardware, according to an entrepreneur behind one of the UK’s most successful edtech startups.

At the age of 15, Simon Hay came up with Firefly – a learning platform, intranet and school website solution that schools can use to communicate with students and parents.

Let students open up their machines urges Firefly cofounder Simon Hay ©Flickr Hey Paul
Let students open up their machines urges Firefly cofounder Simon Hay ©Flickr Hey Paul

The entrepreneur, whose company has been nominated by Bett as the edtech company of the year, came up with the idea for Firefly at St Paul’s School in London, the same school that was attended by chancellor George Osborne, venture capitalist Saul Klein and Times editor James Harding.

 Firefly cofounder Simon Hay started building the platform during his school lunch breaks 15 © Firefly

Hay, now 28, said he and cofounder Joe Mathewson were given permission by “enlightened” senior staff to work on the product in a physics lab during their lunch break.

The idea for Firefly, named after Joe's bike, came about when the pair realised students were travelling into school during study leave just to pick up handouts and to hand in pieces of work.

“We used the physics lab to pull old computers apart and solder things back together and mess about, on the condition that it was restored to normality in time for afternoon lessons,” Hay told Techworld after reading an article revealing that school networks are preventing students from building their own apps.

“I think the whole concept of schools providing locked down computers is obsolete and it’s going to have to change," he said. “The early version of Firefly Learning was running on some computer we’d built from parts sitting under the desk in this physics lab – it was all a bit of an experiment but it ended up with a load of teachers using it because it was solving a problem.”

By the time the IT department at the 506-year-old independent boys school clocked onto the fact that Firefly was being used, teachers were already dependent on it for their day-to-day lesson management, according to Hay.

“We had a slightly awkward altercation with the IT department around 'can we trust stuff written by students',” said Hay. “They were in that fairly standard school mentality of everything must be closed down and controlled and so on. There was some to-ing and fro-ing, which felt pretty painful at the time but I guess if you look back it would have been very easy for it to die there.”

Fortunately for Hay and Mathewson the school allowed teachers at the £30,000-a-year public school to continue using the platform.  

Self-taught coders 

Hay said he and Mathewson taught themselves how to programme from books and the internet.

“The first version [of Firefly] was Java with HTML at the front end,” he explained.

By the time the pair started studying for their A-Levels, students and teachers at St Paul’s had uploaded over 10,000 pages of content.

“We were getting pulled out of lessons to answer questions, fix things and help teachers with it,” said Hay. “At that point we realised this is something that’s quite useful and more than a hobby.”

Beyond school

When Hay and Mathewson left to study computer science and philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) respectively, the school asked them if they would continue to support the platform it had become so dependent on. The pair agreed.

“I went on to do a PhD at Cambridge. We both worked at investment banks for a little bit. We went through all those stages and all that time we were developing Firefly in evenings and weekends as a kind of side project,” Hay added. 

Other schools around the UK soon started using Firefly and Hay said he and Mathewson quit their day jobs when it had been adopted by 30 schools.

Today, Firefly is used in 300 schools across the UK – including Charterhouse, Preston Manor All Through School, and Sevenoaks School. The company is also planning to open its first overseas office in Sydney, Australia, next month, in order to support schools in the 15 other countries that Firefly is now used in. 

London-based Firefly, which typically charges schools between £3,000 and £10,000 depending on the number of pupils it has, currently has 42 employees and several part-time workers/freelancers.

Much of the firm's recent growth came after the UK government gave schools more independence with their budgets.

Hay added: “In the early 2000s the government had this initiative which said every school must have a virtual learning environment and a lot of companies got rich on the basis of building something that exactly met this 300 page spec but wasn’t actually useful to teachers or students.

"The recent move to give schools control of their own budgets and decision making has been great for us. Two thirds of new schools signing up with us are state schools, academies primarily."

Saying no to investors 

The Hammersmith-headquartered company has so far rejected all funding offers made by investors and venture capitalists.

“I think a lot of VCs want to see returns and push you in directions that aren’t really compatible with the way that a lot of schools work,” said Hay. “It’s nice having the freedom and flexibility to follow our own vision rather than someone else’s.

“We’re hiring as quickly as we can find the right people. The hard bit is identifying and bringing on board and growing at a pace that means you aren’t losing your cohesion and culture and so on. “

The company is doubling its turnover and headcount year-on-year, according to Hay.