National Learning Group (NLG), founded in 2019 by Oliver Batten, delivers Maths and English tuition to children and adults around the world through one-to-one, online lessons, with real teachers.
Oliver started tutoring students in January 2019 and National Learning Group spent its first year with a single teacher on its books. By the end of 2020, the company had 12 teachers, growing to 70 by the end of 2021.
Now, NLG has over 200 teachers delivering over 2,000 lessons each week. And as well as growing its tutor base, the office team has grown in parallel to 22 people. Prudhoe Business spoke to Oliver about his business’s rapid growth, international expansion and plans for the future…
PB: Tell us more about the work National Learning Group does…
OB: We deliver Maths and English tuition from reception to GCSE level, including specialist GCSE, SEND, 11+, entrance exam and adult qualification support.
Our main focus is to deliver the highest quality tuition possible, and we take great pride in supporting and helping people to better themselves and reach their goals, through individually tailored support. We don’t tie people into long contracts, and truly believe that if the service that we provide is effective and high quality then they will stick with us long term and keep coming back.
PB: Why Maths and English tuition? Do you have a background in education?
OB: Maths and English are the cornerstones of education, and classed as core subjects. When I started the business, I took the decision to specialise in just those two, and really focus on how to deliver them to the highest possible standard. Now that we are established and have such a great team behind us, we have recently launched support for science.
My background has been varied – I have set up and run businesses in different sectors over the years, but they were never scalable in the way that National Learning Group is. For ten years I was contracted to an education company, which retrained adults, running their sales team nationally.
It taught me a lot about both education and business, however with a young family, being away from home five or six days a week wasn’t sustainable, so I was looking for an opportunity to start something new.
A lot of the adults who we were training had failed their Maths and English qualifications at school, so I thought there must be a need for good quality tutoring that would be able to help and support people though the exams and qualifications, and that’s where the idea of NLG came from.
PB: Do you think all the lockdown periods helped pave the way for more businesses to deliver services online?
OB: I started the business before Covid, as an online service, as it seemed like that was the future. The other options for tutoring involved either having to go and sit in a tuition centre, with one teacher looking after a group of students, or having a tutor visit a student’s house.
Both of these choices seemed limiting, and involve a lot of travel, which isn’t ideal for busy families. Both options also require the student to sit for at least an hour, which can result in wasted time and money, as most people will only concentrate for 20-40 minutes. This is why we deliver our tutoring in blocks of 20 minutes, so young children might do 20 minutes, twice a week, which we can then expand to 40 minutes as they get older.
We always give people the choice and build around what works best for them. We use interactive software to provide homework which cements the learning from the lesson, but we stand by the little-and-often concept.
Lockdown was a double-edged sword for us. On the plus side, it greatly opened people’s eyes to online tutoring and classes, which has changed the face of education delivery in all industries. Most people in the country will have done some kind of online meeting now, be it a family gathering on Zoom, online lessons, or doing workouts with Joe Wicks. The downside is that the schools had to react very quickly and deliver group classes online. This was a huge thing for them adapt to, which often they weren’t set up for, and in some cases, it didn’t work very well.
This has jaded some people’s experience with online tutoring to the extent that they won’t give it another chance.
PB: How has it been for you personally as NLG’s founder experiencing such rapid growth?
OB: The idea for National Learning Group was always to try to make it the best it could be, and to see how far it could go. Growth was always the long-term plan and I relish the challenges and hurdles that this has brought.
The most important thing that has facilitated the growth, is having such a great team here at the office. We are very selective about recruitment – how someone will fit in to the team is just as important as their qualifications and experience.
We have learned a lot of lessons along the way; one of the most important has been to ensure the processes and systems are set up for growth – some things work very well when there are ten people doing it, but not so well when there are a thousand.
The last year has seen us restructuring a lot of our internal processes and procedures to allow for the next stage of growth and expansion. We are currently in the early stages of having a bespoke internal system built for us to run the business on, rather than having to rely on licensing external software. This will give us more control over how things work, and means that everybody will have an even better experience with us. A huge advantage of how we are structured is that we are able to move and adapt quickly, so if we see an opportunity to refine something or make something more efficient, we can implement it straight away rather than having to run things through a board of directors, or management committee.
PB: Your in-house team stands at 22 – has employing staff been a challenge for you after setting up on your own?
OB: Prior to starting the business, I had never employed anyone, and had always been self-employed, so I had a lot to learn. One of the first people I employed had a very strong HR background, so she has been critical to the growth of the team, and our accountants and legal team have also helped with the intricacies of employment law, contracts, payroll etc. The biggest overall challenge for me personally was learning to ‘let go’ and delegate.
Going from doing everything yourself, to having to give that ‘task’ to someone else is very difficult. When you create a process, it can be hard to pass that on, but working with such a strong team has taught me that they end up doing a great job and the process gets refined and improved.
It all starts with making sure we recruit the right people for each role, so that they are able to bring new ideas and energy to the team, which ultimately makes us stronger. I am so grateful to work alongside such great team.
PB: What brought you to Prudhoe from Hexham?
OB: I moved out of my home office and into a small office in Hexham in September 2020. At the time, it was the only suitable office locally I could find, but knew that we would outgrow it quickly. By summer 2021, we were ready for a move, as I was about to take on a third member of staff and the office wasn’t big enough. I searched around Hexham but couldn’t find anything big enough to facilitate the growth I was planning.
Recruitment was also proving difficult in Hexham, as a lot of people from Newcastle and Durham found it a bit too far to travel. I started to look at moving closer to Newcastle, but didn’t want to go too close to the city, which is when I came across the office in Prudhoe. The site is quite industrial, but the office was perfect to grow into, so we moved in July 2022. At first it felt huge with just 4 of us in such a large space, but now we are up to 22 people the office has a great atmosphere, and the is plenty more space to grow before we need to start looking around again.
We enjoy being in Prudhoe, as it’s central for people traveling from around the region and as well as having the convenience of the town centre. There are some great woodland walks for people to get out for some fresh air.
PB: As well as tutoring children around the UK, you recently expanded into Asia, tell us about that…
OB: When NLG first started, I had really only envisaged working with children from Reception to GCSE, but as we grew, we found more and more adult students learning with us, and a big percentage of them were leaning English as a second language. The feedback we were getting showed that it worked very well and was something that we should be growing. I started looking at how we could launch internationally, teaching adults English.
We did some trials in different countries, advertising into Greece, France, Spain and others, to see what the demand was like, but I always had an eye on China.
Everybody told me that China would be too hard, and it would be sensible to launch in Europe first. They were right of course, and it’s been a monumental challenge – the main one being the China internet firewall and just how different it is to do anything on the internet there.
We have had some support from the Department for International Trade, and we have two Chinese speakers in the office who are working very hard to make it a success. We also had to make a new brand for Asia, which is loosely translated as Next Level Learning Group.
PB: Does the company have plans for further international expansion?
OB: We are always looking at opportunities and are currently going through the approval process to be able to deliver tutoring into schools under the Governments National Tutoring Project scheme. Hopefully this will add another string to our bow, and give us a route for further expansion. When we feel like things have stabilised with the China expansion, we will certainly look at what we can do in Europe, and have also had talks with people about India and UAE.
We are open to any routes to support people who are in need of our services, and are also looking at how we could start a charity arm of the business to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Online education is here to stay, and with emerging technologies such as VR and augmented reality, this sector will be a very exciting place to be in the coming years. We will always be looking at how we can improve things for our staff, students and tutors, and create a service that benefits people worldwide.
PB: What’s been the highlight – a stand-out proud moment – for you since starting out almost four years ago?
OB: I find it hard to take time to look back reflect, as we are still pushing forward and ‘climbing the mountain’. There have been a few certain milestone numbers that it has been nice to hit, but the thing I am most proud of, is the team of people I work with; both the tutors and the office staff. Although the tutors are all home based, we have weekly ‘tutor drop in’ sessions – an open Zoom meeting where they can all ‘drop in’ to meet each other, and feel part of the team.
We have a very thorough tutor recruitment process, so the tutors spend a lot of time with the recruitment and training team from the office, so we get to know them well before they start actually teaching for us. The office team all work together and get on so well, that I genuinely look forward to coming in each day and working alongside them. We are all pulling in the same direction, and after working alone for so long, it feels great to be part of such a fantastic group of people.
PB: Finally, tell us about one of your most valued members of the team – the office dog…
OB: The most popular member of the team is definitely Chester the office dog. He is a one-and-a-half-year-old Cockapoo owned by Deb, our HR and Office Manager. He spends his days going from desk to desk looking for attention and treats – in between naps.