How Doncaster publisher become one of biggest exam boards in Britain

Highfield Group staff pictured at Highfield House, on Heaven's Walk, Doncaster. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP Highfield Group MC 2
Highfield Group staff pictured at Highfield House, on Heaven's Walk, Doncaster. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP Highfield Group MC 2

It started out as a publishing company - but today Highfield Group, based near Doncaster town centre, is one of the biggest exam boards in Britain.

Set up in 1982 in the basement of the home of former Doncaster council officer Richard Sprenger and his wife Jayne, to publish a book about food safety, it has transformed into one of Doncaster's biggest employers with over 200 staff, and selling to 106 different countries.

Richard Sprenger, who is now group chairman and based at the firm's office in Dubai, was Doncaster Council's director of environmental services until 1999, and had written a food safety handbook. He was unable to find a publisher, so published it himself, setting up Highfield Publications. It went on to sell millions of copies.

The firm went on to enter the e-learning market when it was still new in 1999, with Cadbury becoming its first customer.

And in 2008, it set up Highfield Awarding Body for Compliance - now called Highfield Qualifications - which draws up and assesses exams. It is now the third largest provider of qualifications in the country by number of candidates, behind Pearson and City and Guilds. There are around 180 exam boards recognised by regulator Ofqual.

Highfield create courses, provide resources to run them, and do the assessment.

Today the firm has three sites on business estates in Doncaster, at Heaven's Walk, Shaw Wood and Sidings Court, plus offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, although there are plans for the future to put all the Donaster sites together in one larger building, possibly in the Lakeside area.

The business is still growing. It was recently awarded a grant from the Sheffield City region on the condition that it created 75 jobs. There were 30 taken on recently.

But there are challenges.

Shelley Houlbrook, director of communications and strategic partnerships, said: "One of the challenges has been related to our e-learning business. It has sometimes been difficult to find the talent in the Doncaster area to come on board. A lot of the IT expertise tends to go to the larger cities within the Yorkshire region such as Leeds and Sheffield”.

"To deal with this we have started our own apprentice scheme, so that we can recruit locally. We are Doncaster's largest employer in terms of growth. It is certainly not just Doncaster that struggles against Leeds, Sheffield and London though”.

"We want to encourage people who have not worked in education before to consider this growing sector. Highfield engages a significant number of subject matter experts across a spectrum of diverse areas, ranging from food safety through to rail engineering and aviation”.

"But we also have many different staff, and assessors from a variety of other working backgrounds including retail, security and health and social care."

A recent area of growth has been apprenticeship courses and assessments, and this is expected to continue to increase since the the Government brought in an apprenticeship levy, which means companies over a certain size must spend 0.5 per cent of the annual pay bill on apprenticeships.

Work has also been done in drawing up courses dealing with security.

This really came to the fore in 2012 at the time of the London Olympics. Organisers found themselves with problems when G4S admitted it "would not be able to deliver the numbers of security personnel that they had promised.", shortly before the games was due to start.

The crisis prompted a massive surge in the demand for training and exams in security, and the authorities rushed to recruit staff to do the work.

Chief executive Jason Sprenger, Richard's son, said: "Highfield’s contribution to the ‘Bridging the Gap’ project for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games was significant. This is where we worked in partnership with some of the world’s largest security organisations to address the shortfall in security personnel and bring thousands of new recruits into the security industry within a matter of months.

"Being the largest examination board in the sector, we helped to safeguard the nation’s security by providing the mandatory qualifications needed to work at the numerous sports venues used across the country. The vast majority of security personnel certificated by Highfield remain within the security sector today.”

"Our fantastic and dedicated staff put in shifts around the clock and through the weekends to make sure the extraordinary amount of additional qualifications required were provided prior to the start of the Games."

More recent security work has seen the firm work on terrorism prevention work in association with the National Counter Terrorism Security Office. The security course work recently saw the firm film a stunted video of an evacuation at Lakeside Village, complete with flame effects.

They have also created and assess the courses which have been created at the National College for High Speed Rail at its sites in both Doncaster and Birmingham, which are the first courses of their kind in the country.

Mr Sprenger added: "We've taken on a further 32 new members of staff within the last two months. Our significant growth is expected to continue over the next 12 months”.

“Highfield currently provides materials in 30 languages, in over 100 countries to some of the largest organisations in the world – not bad for a company that began over 35 years ago from a small basement in South Yorkshire."