No textbook answers to ongoing contraction in education industry


FUTURE PROOF: Folens:Educational publisher Folens has battled to improve efficiency and recently announced 25 new jobs in online and mobile learning

IT WAS SPRING 2008 when educational publisher Folens first felt recession bite. Having provided educational textbooks to generations of Irish schoolchildren and their teachers, demand suddenly hit a wall.

“What we saw immediately was that where teachers had discretionary products on their booklists, they disappeared,” says Folens chief executive John Caddell. “There was an immediate contraction in that part of the business.”

Folens was founded by Belgian teacher Albert Folens in the 1950s as a result of demand from other teachers for his notes. The business has since grown to provide textbooks at primary and post-primary level and is the largest supplier of educational materials to teachers in Ireland.

The annual cycle of book-buying hit a speed bump on entering the 2009 school year, with both schools and parents tightening the purse strings.

Not only was spend on discretionary materials cut, but book rental schemes and second-hand book sales, always a feature of the industry, became more widespread.

“They’ve always existed so it wasn’t that it was a new phenomenon – but they just became more commonplace,” says Caddell.

Folens responded with a price freeze, which four years later is still in place despite input increases in the price of paper, which the company has chosen to absorb, says Caddell.

“But we’ve made cost savings and have done our utmost to become as efficient as humanly possible in how we run our business,” he says.

Alongside the costs associated with producing, printing, marketing and distributing books, he says the key input to Folens books are the teachers and authors who write them.

“We’re fortunate that our work with all of them is on a percentage basis, so it remains variable from a business perspective,” says Caddell.

Overall, he estimates the education industry has contracted by about 15 per cent in the past five years. But in addition to its recession strategy of cutting costs and freezing book prices, Folens has also been investing in its range.

In 2009, the company became the first educational publisher in Ireland to deliver content and textbooks for teachers online, through its Folensonline division. The materials include video, animation and audio clips to support teaching.

Earlier this year, Folens launched a selection of post-primary student eBooks available on Android, iOS (iPad only) and Windows devices. All its student eBook content is available offline too, including embedded audio and video content.

“We’ve made sure our customers’ needs are met to the highest possible standards and that’s where we are supplying online materials . . . that was a big help to our product range that we are supporting it so proactively,” says Caddell.

The company has also invested in new core textbook ranges including a literacy and numeracy range for primary school children.

“We’ve continued to invest in new schemes during the period even though we felt demand was going to be lower than it had been,” says Caddell.

But what of the annual debate where cash-strapped parents berate publishers for bringing out new editions not much different from the old?

Caddell feels publishers are unfairly labelled with the charge. “We never do what you would call frivolous changes to any of our schemes,” he says. “We only revise a book when we have been asked to do so, and that comes from our research with teachers.”

He says as part of the Irish Educational Publishers’ Association 2011 code of practice, every textbook now remains in print for six years and for two years after the publication of a new edition.

Despite the difficult market, Folens last month announced the creation of 25 new jobs in its spin-off high-tech online and mobile learning company, Apierian.

Aimed at students rather than teachers and delivered online and on mobile devices, the content is designed to assess a learner’s abilities and provide him or her with the right content at the right time to learn at their own pace.

“We’re starting off in the exam preparation space but we’d see this project migrating into third level, corporate e-learning or the world of continuing education or professional development,” says Caddell. Apierian’s first product is due out at the end of this year.

Folens is also investing in early stage education technology start-up businesses. “We’ll take a stake in those businesses to give them the resources to commercialise products and take their businesses to the next stage,” says Caddell.

With the use of technology in learning increasing and a move internationally towards measurement and assessment, which he says has yet to hit Ireland, Caddell says change in the world of education is a constant. Folens seems up for the test.

“We have about 75 staff at the moment and the latest jobs announcement will take us up to 100. Every day brings new challenges for us – and that’s great.”