Investment Note

Ending Australia's lesson lottery: why we invested in Cleverbean

Written by
Tom Smalley
On behalf of the Skalata Investment Team
“We're solving three key problems - providing the best quality materials for teachers, making them lightning-fast to find, and ensuring that every student is being pushed to their highest level.”
Lucy Chambers

You're a primary school teacher. You love your job, but you're starting to feel burned out. 

You're working long hours, trying to come up with engaging lesson plans from scratch, and not feeling super supported by your school. 

You're not alone. The majority of Australian teachers are facing the exact same scenario.

Teachers are no longer just “teachers” – they’re counsellor, adjudicator, administrator. They’ve got english, maths, science, technology, creative arts, and physical education tabs open in their brains - sometimes for different grades. And more tabs means they’re more and more disconnected from the students they’re meant to be helping.

To add fuel to the fire, student behaviour is also on the decline. Australian classrooms are among the ‘least favourable’ for discipline in the entire OECD.

The FY24 Budget saw an additional $25 million chipped in to pilot new ways to reduce teacher workloads and maximise teaching time. But refusing to wait for the glacially slow cogs to turn, edtech Cleverbean is giving the government a lesson in efficiency.

The platform acts as a digital teaching assistant, providing educators with engaging learning materials that cover 100% of the Australian literacy curriculum. 

It saves time, improves learning outcomes, and is already leveraging AI to assist teachers in providing personalised feedback to their students.

Meet the problem

Cleverbean co-founder and former primary school teacher Lucy Chambers says:

“Teachers spend an average of 8 hours per week preparing for lessons, but 92% say they don’t have enough time to prepare for effective classroom teaching.”

Through no fault of their teachers, Australia’s children are being subjected to what the 2022 Grattan Report has called the “lesson lottery”.

There is simply not enough time in the day to provide high-quality lessons AND feedback to students.

Sadly, but not at all surprisingly, there are record rates of teaching graduates leaving the profession in their first 5 years. They're fed up with the status quo.

Meet the product

Teachers often plan lessons from scratch, using social media to help them discover pre-planned materials. 

While there is often great content available, there is no standard of governance. This makes it tricky to know if content has been developed based on any form of educational evidence.

Cleverbean solves this problem by offering thousands of research-informed, evidence-backed learning materials. It’s easy to implement and powerfully scalable.

What this looks like in the classroom is: clear lesson plans and associated materials, both digital and physical learning activities, crafts for engaging learning experiences, and ongoing formative assessment tasks.

All of this results in higher levels of student engagement, memorability of skills and ultimately higher educational outcomes. 

“Students who would previously not write anything are now interacting, discussing, and working through it all verbally with Cleverbean. It’s just brilliant.”

- NSW Primary School teacher

It’s evidence-based - specifically on the work of Fisher and Frey, University of Melbourne professor John Hattie, and The Science of Reading (a huge body of interdisciplinary research relating to literacy and learning).

Unlike standard lesson plan generators, Cleverbean uses AI as well as a perpetual user feedback loop to continually improve learning outcomes. The content is designed to be a huge departure from the repetitive, uninspiring stuff most of us remember from the school years of old.

“I wish I had the time to plan such amazing lessons myself.”

– NSW Kindergarten Teacher

Overhaul at the government level takes time. But what teachers need immediately is access to is quality lesson materials - in which case they are almost 4 times more likely to be satisfied with their school’s planning approach. 

Meet the founders 

Fittingly, founders Lucy and Alina met in school.

Lucy has deep domain expertise, having spent fifteen years teaching primary school students before founding Cleverbean. She’s also a committee member of ALEA (Australian Literacy Educators' Association).

Alina brings the commercial experience, with a track record of growing member bases in the hundreds of thousands. Alina was a General Manager at Bupa (Digital) and Head of Digital Product for Qantas Business Rewards, leading strategy, product, commercial, technology and user experience (UX) and managing a 65-strong team.

She also has impressive startup chops. Working as a growth marketer in the early days of Temple and Webster, Alina helped grow the beloved Aussie eCom retailer from 20k to over 1m customers.

First class

The first iteration of Cleverbean went live in March 2018, and the founders career juggled while experimenting, learning, and iterating. 

They received the Boosting Female Founders grant in 2020, and “strapped in for a super-size-me ride, hired a team, and pivoted our whole proposition towards quality content first,” Lucy says. 

“We re-launched less than three months later, in January 2021, and on our first day had over 100 teachers sign up.”

Meet the customers

Alina and Lucy put their rapid growth primarily down to social media sharing and word-of-mouth referrals among teachers. Offering free trials paid dividends, with 70% of users becoming paying customers. 

In a members’ survey, 96% of respondents told them Cleverbean saves them time in their literacy planning.

“Our Net Promoter Score is sitting at 80,” says Lucy. “The weekly fan mail of student success stories is what gets us through the difficult times.”

Cleverbean now has three validated customer segments:

  • Teachers
  • Schools
  • The government (and potential for government contracts)

It seems unusual for teachers to pay for their own teaching materials - especially given they’re notoriously underpaid.

But often at their wits end after months or years spent unsuccessfully lobbying their employers for support, the affordable subscription model has proved a small price to pay for an easier life.

Lucy and Alina would much prefer schools pick up the bill - and are now shifting their focus to get schools to pay on behalf of teachers.

When the results speak for themselves, teachers can test and validate Cleverbean before getting school heads on board. It gives the team warm leads into preferred supplier conversations. 

It’s back to front, but it’s a lower barrier to entry, and effective in building network effects. In the meantime, teacher stress levels go down, jobs are retained, and learning outcomes are being improved across the country. 

And when it comes to B2C vs B2B, Lucy and Alina have done the hardest one first.

The global addressable edtech market is worth AUD $182 billion, with primary schools accounting for a quarter of this.

Future of the classroom

Cleverbean are learning as they help teach.

The next lesson will be shifting the focus from B2C to B2B, and building out AI and data models to more efficiently support teachers. Alina says:

“It's important that we're working on the cusp of technical discomfort, but delivering the experience in a way that teachers feel comfortable with.”

Australia is far from the only country where teachers are struggling to keep heads above water, and Cleverbean is already seeing a broader pickup from overseas. Teachers in the US, UK, NZ and Germany are among an international cohort of happy customers.

AI-assisted feedback

At the time of writing, the founders are fresh off completing the technical proof of concept on their AI offering that helps teachers give real-time feedback to students, connecting to their ultra high standard literacy materials.

This was based on an analysis of hundreds of pieces of classroom work, teachers’ feedback, and teachers’ level of experience.

The insights were clear: 

  1. Over 90% of student writing work did not get high-quality feedback, and there was a direct correlation between the quality of the feedback and the capability of the students.
  2. ~85% of students receive the majority of feedback the day after the lesson (teachers can't possibly get to every student in every lesson – particularly for more complicated and nuanced skills such as writing).
  3. 100% of graduate teachers in the study (first 5 years of teaching) were not able to give high-quality explicit feedback on student writing.
“It is clear that student work reflects not only their capability, but also the culture of the classroom.”

“Where there may be behavioural issues, Cleverbean can integrate well-being solutions to create a more holistic approach to teacher professional development and support.”

Moving up a grade

Next up is getting the AI into more schools for the next phase of testing.

We’re in the AI era. We’re also post-pandemic, post-digital, and in the midst of the great WFH/hybrid experiment. Government organisations always move glacially compared to commercial ones, but the classroom is changing just like everything else.

In Alina’s words: 

“This isn't about replacing teachers, rather using technology to ease their workload and allow them to focus on connecting, caring for, guiding, and supporting their students.”

AI can automate the high volume tasks, leaving teachers and students with fast insights and feedback to deliver personalised learning and support.

The Grattan report exposed some pretty staggering numbers and blew open the conversation between government, school leadership, and classroom teachers.

Cleverbean is in a unique and timely position to start filling those gaps in learning, create memorable classroom experiences, and help pull back that 30% of Aussie kids from the brink of illiteracy.

Inspired by Cleverbean's story?