In January 2011, I left my director role at Tribal Group and retired. For whatever reasons – more luck than judgement – I found myself at a time and place in my life with no need to make any more money. Since being diagnosed with cancer in 2006, my other half had continually badgered me to give up work. We had the means to do whatever we wanted. Daily I would be told that we should travel, rest, enjoy ourselves, do all the things we had spoken about doing in life. But, as a complete workaholic, the very thought filled me with terror. So, I threw myself back into work, both at Tribal and the property firm I co-own with my best friend. Following years of pleading, I finally relented. 2011 was a most unusual year – no work, no pressure, no demands on me. We did travel – a heck of a lot – and had a lot of fun. To my surprise, after the initial restlessness, I actually started to enjoy the laid-back lifestyle and became genuinely open to the idea of never working again.
I was sitting on a beach near our home in Portugal, when an email popped up on my phone telling me that an old chum was giving a speech at the Roundhouse in Camden the following Saturday afternoon. The conference was about artificial intelligence in education, which had been a key interest of mine for many years. So, I hopped on a plane and headed to London, expecting no more than an interesting day, catching up with an old mate and meeting up with some friends for supper before heading back to Portugal.
Instead, that day everything changed.
During the lunch break, I wandered around the various exhibition stalls, meeting start-up founders and scouting for potential new investments. One company was showing off its new iPhone app for learning maths. It was awful. Although it looked fantastic, the way in which the mathematical concepts were being communicated to the user was not only misguided, but would have made a student embed some serious misconceptions. I spoke to the guy on the stand and pointed out that the app was potentially harmful to students trying to learn maths by using their product. The sales rep passed me over to another guy on the stand, who looked similarly bewildered and suggested I needed to speak to the chap who had designed the app.
The app creator was hiding behind the display banner. The sales guys sent me in his direction and I introduced myself. He was Alastair Cruickshank and I liked him instantly.
Rather than being affronted by criticism of his new app, Alastair was genuinely interested to understand the concerns being raised. We spoke at length about his own experience of school, his thoughts around the power of education to transform – to save – lives and his all encompassing desire to help to make things better for young people. I carefully described the weaknesses in the approaches used in the app and the impact they would have on students. We both fascinated each other and set a date for lunch.
Al and I met at RIBA on Portland Place the following Monday afternoon and spoke for hours. The result was the idea that effective maths approaches, such as the use of CPA models, could be communicated in a series of virtual manipulatives, which could be given an intelligence in a digital product that would be able to replicate the best features of 1-to-1 tuition. Alastair carried a small jotter, which he frantically filled with notes and diagrams, bringing to life the ideas we batted around. Beluga Maths was born.
Those people who truly touch our lives are precious and rare; I guess most of us clock up just a handful in an entire lifetime. To truly click with another human being throws light on our lives and is, as far as I can tell, the whole meaning of life. I loved Alastair completely and instantly.
The next two years flowed with creativity, passion, joy, despair, intellect and madness. We pulled together a group of people to help build our wonderful idea. Sometimes, things just work out right; the group of maths educators and developers who conceived and designed Beluga all bought into what we were trying to achieve and the resulting product was phenomenal. Beluga Maths was as beautiful as Alastair’s mind.
We launched the first version of Beluga in the spring of 2013 to instant and universal praise. It was, and remains, the best piece of education technology I have ever witnessed – by a very long way.
Alastair had found a genius developer to come on board – uniquely, he was able to connect emotionally with what we wanted to achieve rather than just wade through code as is the norm with developers. I committed myself fully to Alastair’s dream as an investor in the company and took the reins as CEO to push the business forward. The scene was set for the roll out of the planned future versions.
In September 2013, Alastair and I sat in my garden in the Algarve, discussing our future and the plans for Beluga. He was on fire and filled with ideas. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
In October, I travelled to the UK to meet with our maths team in Cheltenham – it was an incredible weekend of creativity and insight. During supper, my phone started to ring and Al’s face appeared on the screen, which always filled me with joy. I stepped outside to speak with him and tell him about the progress we were making. He was in Sada in northern Spain preparing his yacht for a solo sail to Portugal the next morning. My heart lifted at the thought of meeting up with him at home in Tavira in just a couple of days.
And then he was gone.
Alastair’s death tore me apart. He was so young, so beautiful, so important to me that I find it impossible to express. Still today, I think of him every day. Writing his name here, thinking about his smile, fills me with warmth and love. And then pain. Losing Al has been the hardest.
Without Al, the thought of continuing with Beluga seemed utterly pointless. Everything stopped and Beluga ceased to be. I have never written about Alastair’s death before now and was not able to answer questions at the time about why Beluga had suddenly disappeared. I pushed the pain deep inside of me and did not want to risk unleashing it for fear of breaking. For years, I have been unable to speak about those days.
Grief is a well understood process. Tomes have been written on it and faux therapists up and down the land daily empty tragic people’s pockets with promises of an accelerated path to peace. My experience of losing loved ones is that there is no silver bullet that brings about recovery. Time is all. It is now four years since Alastair died and I find myself wanting more than anything to speak about him. This man, with whom I was so in love, made me laugh so much, made me so happy, made me care, made me want to work and be useful again, made me want to live. I find myself wanting to celebrate him, to make sure that the world knows how wonderful he was.
As I sit here now, I am flicking through the jotter that Alastair carried around with him. Looking at his initial sketches of what would become Beluga. For years, this has been a private act; occasionally bringing it out and wrapping myself in memories of Alastair before becoming overcome by tears and sorrow. Now, I just feel happiness. Happy that I had my time with him, short though it was.
Alastair had a beautiful but fragile mind. He would have moments of great enlightenment and lucidity, which would drive our vision for Beluga forward in great leaps. And then nothing for days, sometimes weeks, before the next idea would consume him. This jotter is a record of his genius, compassion and hopes.
Our obsession was not with changing the process of good maths teaching, but with educating those children in the world who did not have a good maths teacher or had no teacher at all. And it was working. The TES ran a feature about our work, in which I espoused our deep and sincere aspiration to change the lives of the 60 million children globally who never meet a teacher.
We had mapped out the whole of Beluga. We knew what we were building, how to get there and what the impact would be. In 2012, Nesta wrote that Beluga would be the product to advance artificial intelligence. And they were right, it would have been. Having invested in many companies since and reviewed hundreds of potential technologies, nothing comes close.
Beluga had rightly become an instant success on launch – we were number 1 in the Apple Store for a good amount of time and interviews and articles started to spring up, as well as blogs from some great maths teachers.
The app was well loved by many influential people in the maths education community. They were quite rightly curious and frustrated that the story had come to an abrupt and unexplained end. Even today, rarely a week will pass without someone asking me about Beluga. And even today, any mention of it breaks my heart.
I apologise to all those in the maths education community and beyond who got involved with Beluga but received no explanation for its end. Letting you down played on my mind tremendously, but I was not able to talk about it and was not able to continue it on.
Perhaps one day we will bring it back to life.
The developer Alastair introduced back in 2012, Nick and I occasionally speak about resurrecting Beluga. Earlier this year, I had been able to get myself into a frame of mind of being up for it. I spoke with several key people from the old Beluga project and was heartened by the love for the app that they all expressed. Many of the same maths team have been involved in creating Complete Mathematics, the national network of maths teachers we established in 2014, which also has technology at its heart. This project is different; I didn’t want to work on a Beluga-type app, so instead, Nick and I conceived a new idea: an artificial intelligence to support maths teachers, which sprung from a moment in 2012 when Alastair, Nick and I were having supper and Nick suggested that we could analyse not just what students were learning but also the process of teaching. I am enjoying building the Complete Maths app and love the network and CPD side of it. Over the next two years, we will add in artificial intelligence systems – Nick is currently adding one to improve students times tables retention – to the new app and create a learning world not just for students but for teachers too.
I think Al would have liked that.