Homeschool wants to make exams less of a grind for students

22 Oct 2018

Paul Kelly (front) with members of the Homeschool team. Image: Homeschool

Our Start-up of the Week is Homeschool, an online grinds school for primary, and Junior and Leaving Cert students.

“Homeschool was established with the aim of providing educational support to students throughout Ireland and abroad who, for a wide variety of different reasons, are unable to fully access mainstream education,” explained Homeschool CEO and founder Paul Kelly.

Homeschool is an online tuition service providing online lessons and teacher support for primary, and Junior and Leaving Certificate students. All the lessons are taught by the same teachers who teach private grinds lessons and the price is €99 per subject for the full course.

During the course of Homeschool’s two-term, 24-week school year, students will receive their weekly pre-recorded video lesson alongside their set of interactive pdf notes that they will need in order to complete the class. This course matches the Irish curriculum for each subject at the various different levels. A homework task will be set at the end of each week’s lesson. At the start of the next lesson, the teacher will correct the previous week’s homework and provide sample answers to that question. These will be included in a pdf document that accompanies the video lesson each week.

Currently with Homeschool, there are two courses for primary students, seven for Junior Cert and 14 for Leaving Cert.

The market

“Each year, over 120,000 students sit their Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations,” Kelly explained.

“In 2016, the ESRI published the Growing Up in Ireland survey where nearly half (49pc) of 17/18-year-olds in their Leaving Certificate year were taking grinds when they were interviewed, and a further 20pc said they were planning to take them before they sat their Leaving Certificate in June 2016.”

The founder

Man in suit standing on a stage.

Homeschool founder Paul Kelly. Image: Homeschool

Kelly is a former teacher who is still heavily involved in the education landscape in Ireland.

Originally from Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, he taught English and History in Beneavin De la Salle College in Finglas, Dublin, for 14 years. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator for EMEA and is heavily involved in teacher training with secondary schools in Ireland. He completed his master’s in e-learning in Dublin City University.

While he was in and out of hospital visiting his mother who had a lung transplant, he noticed an opportunity to provide an online solution to kids in hospitals to receive regular lessons, rather than missing out on huge chunks of their education.

The technology

Man writing a maths lesson on a whiteboard.

Image: Homeschool

The website is built on the Heroku platform and is maintained by Wicklow-based web development company Showoff, which Kelly teamed up with to put his vision into practice and build a platform for delivering Junior and Leaving certificate lessons online.

The two companies now work together to continue to monitor and improve their service.

‘The ultimate goal is to negate the need for parents to have to pay huge amounts of money for private tuition’

“The ultimate goal is to negate the need for parents to have to pay huge amounts of money for private tuition just because it is seen to be the ‘right thing to do’ for your kids coming up to exam time.

“We also aim to challenge the dominance of grind schools who charge huge fees and who make eye-watering amounts of money each year. These schools’ main selling point or tagline often revolves around the claim that they have the best teachers.

“The real advantage of Homeschool is that we really do have access to the best teachers from around the country as all our staff are already employed full-time in schools throughout Ireland. Our teachers work with us outside their normal school hours in the evening and at weekends.”

A lesson in ambition

Homeschool has been profitable since 2016, thanks in large part to its appearance on RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den where Kelly turned down two investment offers from Gavin Duffy and Barry O’Sullivan.

In 2017, Homeschool had more than 1,000 students enrolled in its online courses, a number it intends on doubling in 2018.

“The biggest challenge on the journey so far related to the name of the company itself, Homeschool. Many parents and students initially failed to realise that the online school would be perfect for students who needed extra help or ‘grinds’ in a subject area.

“Confusion lay in the name of the company as some people felt that you had to be entirely homeschooled to use the service. As the years have passed, however, word of mouth has meant that, in recent times, the number of students using Homeschool as a grinds-style service has increased dramatically.”

The big picture

“I found that the Monaghan Local Enterprise Office was a great starting point for pitching my business to,” said Kelly.

“The fact that an experienced company like then agreed to buy into the company meant that I had access to a wealth of knowledge and insight on how to try and go about building a brand and a company.”

Kelly said it is important to keep an on the big picture.

“I wouldn’t give any advice to other start-ups except to say fair play for trying something new. At this moment, we have students from 17 different countries studying with Homeschool catering for their educational needs.

“If at the design phase you can keep a big-picture view of how your product might fit into other markets, then you will hopefully be eventually rewarded.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years