Ten years ago, Melanie Harwood was told her daughter couldn’t join a school reception because she couldn’t write her name. Fast-forward a decade and Melanie with the help of her daughter has taught thousands of children in schools up and down the country with the Start Bee programme. Now, with school handwriting conquered Melanie is working to raise upwards of £400m for schools across the UK, through a new business and school sponsorship platform.
Taking time out of her busy schedule, the inspirational entrepreneur spoke to SHARP about her journey.
I remember being told that Hannah Jane couldn’t be accepted into the school and I suppose I did what any other parent would do, I pulled over, had a good cry and then told myself to get on with it.
When I got home I looked in her bag and amongst the sheets that were brought home on her last day of pre-school was a letter formation sheet, which must have been shoved into her bag on that last day without me knowing. In that moment I knew her pre-school had failed her.
I remembered my dad using a technique with a lightbox to help with writing so I set about helping Hannah Jane by creating my own method. Within eight days she could write her own name.
It was in that moment that I realised the importance of learning to write and knew I could help others, that there would be others out there like Hannah Jane.
First of all, I needed the rights to use the Sassoon font, so I picked up the phone and spoke to a man at the other end. He told me ‘you must speak to Rosemary.’
What I didn’t know was that Rosemary Sassoon, was an expert in children’s handwriting and had written numerous books on the subject, she must be in her late 80’s by now.
So I began using Rosemary’s letter forms and continued working with Hannah Jane and within two weeks she had overtaken her entire class and was now working at a year one standard.
The teacher called me and asked me what I’d been doing at home, when I told her she asked me to do a trial with the pre-school and after that was a success I was asked to go in and train 16 newly qualified teachers too.
I then met an amazing PR lady called Sarah Wright who was pitching to BIC the pen company for work, when learning about what I did, she asked, how would you get the job?
So I gave her ideas and Start-bee became a crucial part of their PR pitch.
They got the work and Start Bee began working closely with the company. They basically asked us what projects we would like to do and I asked for funding to trial methods in schools across the country. They gave me £38,000 to begin with and I remember just feeling in shock when they handed over the cheque, that was without any shares, without any ownership, they simply wanted me to share my findings and keep working with them.
So I began working with two schools and their brilliant teachers helped us hone in on the product and create an intervention programme for years one to six and another programme from reception onwards.
We then filmed our little girl Hannah Jane from the age of five and filmed over 800 lessons with her. It was so important to us that it was a child giving the lessons, the frequency of a child’s voice is much more likely to be listened to by the other children and within just five lessons, children start repeating the common phrases and remembering the motions.
After developing the programmes we wanted to begin assessing school’s and their handwriting, but to do this we needed funding and to work alongside a University, so we partnered up with Hertfordshire University, paid them for their time and put in an application. Unfortunately we just lost out and that was something that hit me hard and I was down about, but I knew I had to keep going.
The next year however, BIC came back to us and asked if there were any projects they could help with, we told them about wanting to assess schools and they offered us £58,000. We couldn’t believe it, this allowed us to assess 11 schools, creating assessment measures and valuable datapoints for headteachers to be able to cross reference against things like school meals, age etc.
On top of this, the assessment identified dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism. An incredibly useful tool, especially used at an early age where it is so crucial to identify better learning methods for these conditions.
Its such a shame that we didn’t get the original university backed funding and a company has literally just been awarded funding for the exact same project. But I think that’s just a challenge I face as a non-academic and an entrepreneur that’s making a movement in the industry.
However, nothing is going to stop us, most recently, we launched our full e-learning course, now Hannah Jane and her lessons can be accessed up and down the country from any classroom. Our classes have grown as Hannah Jane has and she’s now 11 and can teach children in every primary year. There’s also three types of each exercise for neutral, SEN and dyslexic pupils. No-one misses out. Everyone can learn to write.
I’m so proud of it, this is a consistent, focussed, methodology of children teaching children.
Now, we’ve partnered with a brilliant company called the Yorkshire Purchase Organisation who are selling the Start-Bee product on behalf of us and we’re looking at a new challenge.
I’ve sept and breathed handwriting but in my time visiting schools up and down the country, it was clear that there were other areas that needed attention.
I can see where the gaps are and with my experience with BIC and contacts now in the industry, I have curated 15 different packages available for primary schools. I have gone to suppliers and asked professionals for the best products in each subject. For example, everyone told me I had to see Doodle Maths, created by an amazing lady who has programmed an AI algorithym to teach maths and calculate the Maths age of each child.
This is going to be a not-for-profit company that works to connect all types of businesses to schools, businesses that are passionate about their next generation’s education and want to sponsor the different subjects. We’ve already had interest from international companies and also smaller hyperlocal companies. Everyone knows that education is key.
I am really going for it and I believe that we can raise 4-500 million pounds for schools across the country. I’ve made some incredible contacts along the way, who are all working to achieve the same.
Think about it, at every school there are 1,800 parents, 1000 grandparents, other stakeholders and members of the community. Wouldn’t they want to donate or help find businesses to get involved? There are so many benefits for a business to do this, it could be advertising outside the school, for their own CSR policy or even to secure their next generation of workers.
You don’t ask, you don’t get and with what we have planned, we are committed to getting 37,000 schools these subject packages.
As I round off chatting to Melanie, the world is her Oyster, she is confident, inspirational and we are confident here at SHARP that nothing will stop her.
To learn more about Melanie visit: http://start-bee.com