The Revision Guides are a hugely successful part of the OSC offering to students and schools, and are sold to hundreds of countries around the world. They first appeared on the scene in 2002 as a result of an experiment the previous year. At the time OSC was a smaller, family-owned company, run by Eileen Polgreen who had started the revision courses in Oxford in 1990 – they had expanded to run in Oxford, Cambridge, and Boston, and new initiatives, such as university tours, were taking off as well. I taught Maths on the courses and, aware how much students gained from intensive revision, felt we should be able to do something for those who were not able to attend. In discussion with Eileen, we felt that providing study guides which reflected the ethos of the courses – content and practice directed solely at the exams – might go down well.
With two other teachers – we had all taught at Sevenoaks School – we decided to draft out ten pages each of Mathematics, Biology, and Chemistry, then get together again to see what it looked like. On the assumption that we wouldn’t sell in large numbers, we found a printer who would produce the books digitally (effectively high quality photocopying plus covers and binding) and off we went. When we sat round the table we were pleased with the results – the content was good, and proper printing made it look amazing compared to a home printer! We drew up guidelines to ensure each of the books had a consistent look and style, and decided to go ahead with six books: HL and SL for Chemistry and Biology SL, and Studies for Mathematics, with a deadline of January 2002, so we could have the books ready for students taking their diploma exams in May.
It was brave of Eileen to put the money up from OSC courses to print the books: OSC wasn’t a publisher, and we hadn’t written any books before! But we printed 2,500 books which were delivered to my house in SE England – the OSC offices at that time were in Eileen’s house and there was neither the space nor the staff to deal with book dispatch, so I said my wife would be happy to do it! There were no online sales, no linkup with Amazon – orders came in by phone or by email, and these were then emailed to us for dispatch. We had no franking machine, so we had to go to the Post Office every day to buy lots of stamps. We were expecting orders for a couple of books each from students, and were amazed when schools started ordering them in hundreds; we had to work out from scratch how to pack large orders, and the cheapest way to send them – and, much to our surprise and delight, we had to go back to the printer for another print run.
The revision guides clearly filled a gap in the market, and, as more and more authors came on board, the number of titles gradually increased. Another brave decision was to produce separate guides for all the options. We knew that some options were taken by very few students, and we were bound to make a loss on those books, but felt that it was only right to completely cover each subject.
By the time we decided to give up the dispatch in 2013 there were nearly 50 titles, and we were packing over 40,000 books a year in our front room – which, to be fair, was quite large: it had to be because we had to store about 7,000 books to ensure we never ran out. We prided ourselves on always sending out orders within 24 hours of receipt, weekends included, but at times the orders were coming in faster than we could pack them. We both managed all this in our spare time, but decided in the end there was more to life.
So now the guides are written by teachers who can claim to be professional authors, the books are printed and dispatched by a specialist company, and OSC has moved on from one part-timer in charge of the whole books process, to a dedicated professional team who commission, oversee, produce and market the whole range of guides. Yet the ethos we started with – producing guides to give students what they need to pass exams – is still the basis of every title, and has been transferred to the online Smartbacc series as well. When we started, we didn’t know if we’d sell a single book. Now, 14 years later, with total sales approaching half a million, I think it’s safe to say the idea was a good one!
Ian is a Maths teacher with nearly 40 years’ experience. He has been involved with IB teaching from its earliest days. He is a regular teacher at OSC Spring Revision Courses and Summer Schools.