The real-life business apprentices

Gordon Brown has given schools £180m to foster budding Alan Sugars. But what is 'enterprise', exactly? And can you teach it? Hilary Wilce reports on the controversial scheme
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gordon Brown believes that the future of Britain depends on us all becoming more entrepreneurial, and that young people must be taught how while they are still at school.

As a result, schools now have to offer every 14- to 16-year-old five days' of enterprise education to ensure that we encourage the Alan Sugars and Richard Bransons of the future. A large sum of money - £180m - has been allocated over three years to do it, approximately £17,000 a year for the average-size secondary school, and the Government has issued guidance to teachers, is monitoring pilot projects, and funding advisers to work in the country's most deprived areas.

But what is enterprise? Can you teach it? And are teachers - who spend their lives keeping classrooms in order and worrying about league table rankings - the right people to encourage risk-taking and independent thinking?

These questions are acquiring new urgency as the zeal and money of the Treasury hits the tests-and-targets culture of the Department for Education and Skills. The former is hell-bent on changing attitudes, but the latter has the much harder task of working out how to foster and then evaluate these elusive changes.

"Education traditionally emphasises logic, a canon of rules and written examinations. But for enterprise to flourish you need lateral thinking, tacit knowledge and the ability to operate in a fluid and ambiguous environment," says Kevin Steele, chief executive of the Make Your Mark campaign, a national competition run by the campaigning group Enterprise Insight.

Yet, Steele says, it is vital that this conflict is resolved. "Because someone born today is likely to face 19 changes of job during their working life, so whether they are going to be an employee, set up their own business, or go into the field of social entrepreneurship, they are going to need these skills far, far more than any generation before them."

But reports from Ofsted, in both 2003 and 2005, show how hard this is likely to be. Inspectors say that about a third of schools doing enterprise education still have no clear definition of what enterprise is. Some think it is about creativity; others about business start-ups.

The Government defines it as helping young people to develop the skills of innovation, creativity, risk management and business understanding. However, that still leaves schools free to view it either as something that can be dealt with via a few speakers from industry, or to assert that "problem-solving" and "team-building" are already taught across the curriculum, and do nothing at all.

"We don't think that as a concept it is properly understood," says Sir Michael Savory, UK chief executive of the charity Young Enterprise. "Enterprise skills have to be embedded in the normal curriculum. And you have to get over to children that the reason they're learning the three Rs is ultimately that they will be going into work."

Lynne Weber, an assistant head at Stockwell Park School, a south London 11-to-16 specialist business and enterprise college, agrees that one of the biggest misconceptions about enterprise is that it is separate from the other things that pupils are learning. The school has identified a range of 13 skills, including leadership and team skills, the ability to network, and the capacity to cope with change, that come under the heading of enterprise and that can be built up in a pupil's portfolio. "Enterprise is very close to life skills. It involves business skills, but that's not all of it by a long way," says Weber.

Charlotte Davies, enterprise project manager of the Economics and Business Education Association, points out that this is the first time that enterprise education has been properly funded. "So it's a major cultural change. Some schools are embedding it into the ethos, but if a school's leadership is not clued up and involved, you can forget it. And you do still come across the attitude that 'We're not here to provide economic fodder.'"

Yet enterprise excites young people, she says. It allows all kinds of student, both the academic and the non-academic, to flourish. And many schools are already encouraging it by having their students enter business challenges, or take on the responsibility of running school plays or orchestras. "The first step any head needs to do is to walk into his or her school and ask 'How are we doing this already? What do we need to do to more of it?' And teachers need to accept that teaching enterprise is different. You don't do it with worksheets and people sitting in their chairs."

You also need, Davies says, someone who will sort out work experience placements and links to industry because, while there are excellent resources and partners out there, someone has to make things happen.

However, businesses are increasingly keen to work with schools. Rolls-Royce has devised the business simulation game Profitable Pursuit for use by pupils at key stage three and four, and is now training teachers to use it. Nicola Guthrie, the project manager, says: "It was adapted from an internal project for higher level managers and can be used quite flexibly, although, for teachers, it is definitely a different way of teaching. There are more risks, and you have to learn to talk in a business language."

But Young Enterprise's Sir Michael points out that the "good, bad and ugly" are also circling the pool. "There are all kinds of freelance consultants and questionable providers out there. At some point we will have to sort out the sheep from the goats. We will have to look at the range of providers and think about getting people accredited, and about possible qualifications."

No one thinks that an exam in enterprise would make much sense, but some type of standardised self-assessment seems likely as the subject matures.

And much more teacher development will be needed. Mark Delamere, of the University of Nottingham's Institute for Enterprise and Innovation, says that the universities' expertise in this area could be easily drawn on. "Really effective teachers might have it in their DNA, but one of the main challenges will be training teachers and heads. We have the National College for School Leadership at the end of the lawn and could easily exchange ideas and help with training."

Meanwhile, the Chancellor signalled further steps down the road in this year's Budget speech with the announcements that a schools' enterprise network is to be set up and pilot enterprise summer schools are to be launched this summer.

Sue Braybrook, head of the vocational strategy programme for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, says that the new Schools Enterprise Education Network will be vital to keep up the momentum. "We have 200 specialist business and enterprise colleges, and 200 different ways of doing it. There is no typical enterprise school." Regional "hubs and spokes" will, she says, allow schools to learn from each other. "There is an enormous amount out there. The problem for schools is navigating their way around it and taking what's appropriate."

But Steele believes that the most important step still remains a shift in thinking. "The important thing is that we move from a deficit model to an enabling one. Instead of believing that young people need an expert to come along and pour enterprise into them, we have to see that it runs in their blood and just needs support and encouragement to come out."

'Enterprise is a mindset, a can-do attitude'

Finchley Catholic High School is a boys' comprehensive that has been a business and enterprise college for four years. In that time it has acquired a range of business and charitable partners and embarked on numerous new projects. Boys run programmes for pensioners and autistic children. Year Seven pupils spend a day at work with their parents. Junior journalists run a website, and the school's Lenten charity appeal raises £10,000 a year. Sixth-formers act as business consultants to younger pupils and in local primary schools, and the school is running a pioneering GCSE in construction studies. Year Seven pupils have recently worked on a leadership module, studying Elizabeth I, while all sixth-form Btec students have an outside business mentor.

Head Kevin Hoare points out that many of these are things that other schools are also doing, and "being enterprising is not about being entrepreneurial per se. It's a mindset, a can-do attitude. It's about encouraging pupils to be resourceful and to feel positive about risk-taking; about shifting attitudes and thinking out of the box. And it ties in with everything - community projects, charity work, work-related learning, citizenship."

Central to the school's success has been the appointment of a full-time community liaison officer, first a young graduate, and now a former bank manager.

All of which has made the school much more open to the community, says Hoare, and seen results rise from 63 per cent of boys getting five good GCSEs in 2002 to 73 per cent last year.

"Everyone has been involved - geography, RE, PE. And we have certainly seen changes in the work ethic and mindset. Boys are more willing to have a go, and if they make a mistake they'll have another go and try to do it better." HW