Giving students free rein to spend five months visiting pubs may seem a tad irresponsible. But for an eight-strong group from Abingdon College, Oxfordshire, an extended pub-crawl was strictly business. The students produced a pub guide for their practical GNVQ assignment, and claim they hardly had time for a drink.
Having conceived the idea with lecturer Viv Hargreaves they sought help from Young Enterprise, a charity that sets up business experience projects for young people. They formed a company called CPH and app-roached potential sponsors. A pound;65 overdraft was followed by an issue of 400 shares at 25 pence.
Together with the loan, Midland Bank offered practical advice. Lisa Hooper from the Abingdon branch helped with cashflow forecasts and business objectives. The bank also provided software for the business plan, and the group was off, immediately facing the fundamental difficulty of business - having to consider risks and make predictions.
Companies within the scheme gave free advice. The team soon discovered that, like themselves, the advisers had varying strengths. Denise Challis from energy company Transco was especially helpful on pulling the group together and sorting out production problems.
For instance, with only two people photocopying, output was slow. The obvious remedy was to train more people to use the machine, which, in such a small group, meant roles had to be less specialised.
National Power's Nick Chapman pointed out the need for proofreading and helped with marketing. He suggested selling hard before Christmas and brought information about the Cowley Trade Fair in January, both ideas that proved sound.
The students say they learned a great deal about people management. "We had been two groups," explains Jeff Gibson, "and had to work together. At first it was difficult." They soon noticed strengths and weaknesses. "Some people are better communicators than others, and some are better at meeting challenges," and indeed, "some people work harder than others," says Laura Clarke.
So did they encourage people in the activities they were less good at, or play to strengths? "A bit of both," is the consensus. Selling was another skill that had to be learned the hard way. The guide consists of advertising from local pubs. But publicans refused simple requests to help with the project, and even when students adopted a more professional approach and showed how the guide could benefit business, progress was slow. Finally, they convinced a local brewery to recommend inclusion in the guide to its tied houses.
The advanced business GNVQ covers finance, marketing, business planning and production. Ms Hargreaves says the project also helped with communication skills, time-management, cashflow and salesmanship. "At school they work to other people's expectations, here they had to create their own."
She believes that within the formal coursework, "much of the material is contrived to be manageable. People work on a break-even, for example, with stated fixed and variable costs. This group had to make guesses, which is more realistic."
But academic standards had to be maintained. "We sometimes had difficulty recognising essential parts of the course," says Ms Hargreaves. Communicating is an example. The project requires students to have talks with four people and keep a diary of the conversations, which is almost impossible. "We had to keep checking that we had the correct evidence at the right time. We emphasised that CPH was the students' company, but of course the college knows what is needed and sometimes you had to keep them on track."
And what of the 26-page guide itself? More than 20 pubs are included and about 60 copies have been sold at pound;2 each. Next year's edition may be even more sophisticated and, as Abingdon people claim Oak Street has more pubs per square yard than any other street in England, a huge potential remains untapped.
National Office of Young Enterprise, Ewart Place, Oxford OX2 7BZ Tel: 01865 311180