'You can do it': Peter Jones reveals how he'll turn teens into entrepreneurs

He's terrified inventors and entrepreneurs on 'Dragons' Den'. Now, Peter Jones is turning his talents to an academy of enterprise – and even former thieves are welcome, he tells Liz Lightfoot
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The Independent Online

Peter Jones is looking pretty relaxed for man who is running a multimillion-pound global business. There's none of that lugubrious demeanour that is evident on the BBC's Dragons' Den. Today, he's boyish and excited because the Learning and Skills Council has given him the go-ahead to open his own state school. It will be Britain's first "Tycoon's Academy", as he can't resist calling it, though the official name is the National Enterprise Academy – one of four new skills academies approved for state funding this month.

His is the most high-profile of the four and it is being fast-tracked, taking its first students in January for a pilot of the new curriculum, ready for the first intake in September 2009. His vision of a school to teach entrepreneurship – to help change what he calls the country's "Can I?" attitude to "I Can!" – was formed while writing his book Tycoon four years ago. Gordon Brown got to hear about it and ministers were soon knocking on his door to find out more.

After a series of failed attempts to get industry involved in running schools, starting with Education Action Zones in 1998, the Government was keen to have a Dragon on board. Negotiating the red tape of the education system has been a challenge, he admits, but the fact that the school is to receive money from the taxpayer doesn't mean he is deferring to officials.

First, he doesn't have to teach the Government's flagship diploma, the qualification that is supposed to herald a new approach to vocational education. "We are writing our own qualification," he says. "We are literally starting from scratch. What I didn't want to do was have a half-skewed qualification that kept other people happy. Let's put that more politely: I want to have a qualification that, in essence, I create and that I believe has more of a chance of success in the future."

Edexcel, one of the four exam bodies in England, is helping to devise the new award and Jones wants it to have the same currency with business as the board's BTEC, a popular vocational qualification threatened by the Diploma. Second, his academy won't be staffed by qualified teachers. "Tutoring will be delivered by previously successful entrepreneurs," he says. "It won't be teachers and that is the tough part about it. We're having to spend a lot of time teaching our entrepreneurs how to teach and, I tell you, it isn't easy and that's why we should have an immense amount of respect for our teachers."

Setting up a school on top of running his business – Phones International, turnover: £180m – is gruelling, he admits, and he rarely has the time to play tennis, his favourite sport, even though one of his offices is opposite the Lawn Tennis Association. Asked whether it is possible to teach entrepreneurship, Jones replies he is sure that you can.

"If I didn't think you could teach it, I wouldn't have spent millions setting up my own enterprise academy. I would just have carried on with my day job."

But don't confuse entrepreneurship with business studies, he says, uncurling his legs to give a flash of the trade-mark stripey socks. "It's not the mechanics of setting up and running a business, but a state of mind, a confidence that you have the knowledge and the right mindset to be successful. A lot of people think you are born with it. I couldn't disagree more. The skills of how to be more enterprising are live and real and can be taught."

He draws heavily on his own experience. He disliked Haileybury Junior School in Windsor, his private prep school, and bunked off at every opportunity to sit in the big chair in his father's office and dream of running a company. But he describes his next school, Windsor Boys', as the happiest time of his life. "When I was 12 I worked with someone – it was actually an English teacher at my school, John Woodward. He was the only teacher in the school to have a top-of-the-range Porsche and all the trappings of success, so it was very interesting for me to find out how he did it. He was probably the wealthiest English teacher in the community."

The teacher ran a successful tennis academy and Jones became his assistant in the holidays. "I saw first-hand how easy it is to create and run a business," he says. Jones then set up his own tennis academy and a computer company while still at school. "By the time I was 19, I had an Audi 80 sport and had bought my first house."

It's all very simple, he says. Confidence is key and students will become confident once they learn how to set up and run a business from people who have done it.

The new curriculum will give them opportunities to seek out and market products in a virtual business environment. Work experience will be real tasks with big companies such as Sainsbury's, Barclays and the Co-op, rather than making the tea and coffee, which was the sum total of his own work experience while at school.

Once the academy is up and running students will take classes at the Amersham and Wycombe College in Buckinghamshire, and masterclasses, challenges and physical activities at Aylesbury College. There will be another branch of the academy in Manchester and nine satellite locations.

After the curriculum and qualification have been finalised, the plan is to provide "learner opportunities" for 11,000 people, including a swathe of adult returners in further education colleges and schools. A quarter of the 16- to 19-year-olds will be from disadvantaged homes but it is as yet unknown how they will be identified.

Jones passed the 11-plus and three A-levels but is keen to recruit budding entrepreneurs with the right attributes who did not excel at school. GCSE passes in maths and English are not compulsory and even a criminal record won't rule them out. He has met people who have been breaking into cars to steal and sell stereos. "It's not to be condoned but it shows enterprise that could be redirected to serving the community," he says.

I put it to him that, historically, English education has not looked particularly kindly on business, seeing it as being about greed or against the principles of the 1944 Education Act to promote the "spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development" of pupils.

He couldn't disagree more. "I really don't want to encourage young people to think that life is about money only. Life is about being able to give yourself choice. If you want to make your own decisions about where you work, what you do, what you earn and what you buy, then being able to make money is an important factor."

And with that he's off to the television studio for the second time this morning, keeping up the high profile that he believes makes it easier for him to get what he wants. This time, a school in his image.