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Quiet please: board meeting in progress;Young Enterprise

THE MEETING has been going on for more than an hour and tensions are running high. Board members are under pressure - they have to put on a crucial presentation in two days, and they are supposed to be starting the liquidation process. But a share dividend hasn't been decided yet, admits the finance director. The deputy managing director, Sarah Crampton, sternly tells the board: "We really need to set a dividend within the next week - we need to call a meeting, with personnel, finance and management."

These are not hardened business people - they're lower-sixth pupils at Tiffin Girls' Grammar School in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, running their own firm in the Young Enterprise Company Programme.

Young Enterprise is a charity sponsored by business which has been running programmes since 1963. Today it works with more than 56,000 students and its Company Programme is growing at an average of 10 per cent a year.

Under the scheme students aged 15 to 19 set up and run their own company. They elect a board, sell shares to raise capital and market a product or service. They have help from business advisers - volunteers from industry - but their role is merely to guide. The teenagers must take all decisions.

Students can also take the Young Enterprise Examination, which brings an internationally-recognised qualification equivalent to a national vocational qualification level 2.

Throughout the United Kingdom tens of thousands of school and college students are taking part in such schemes. And now, as they come to the end of the programme, they will all be getting first-hand experience of liquidating companies.

Tiffin Girls' Grammar has run three companies this year. One of them, Limitless Productions, got off to a shaky start, says their business adviser Fazle Hasnain. "There are 25 people in this company - the largest I have been involved in. To be honest, when I first met them in September I thought it was going to fall apart. There were so many of them, they were difficult to manage. But to see them now, that's the satisfaction of the adviser's role - to see how they have grown in the past six months."

The girls in Limitless Productions designed and made a range of products, including hand-crafted greetings cards, cosmetic bags and a recipe book entitled A Taste of Tiffin.

At one of their weekly after-school board meetings, the girls get down to business. There are reports from finance, marketing and personnel directors.

They also rehearse their presentation - their company is about to compete with eight others in the Young Enterprise London south-west regional finals.

When they get to winding up the company, matters are equally serious. The company has made a pre-tax profit of pound;617.53, and the board members discuss donating some of it to the school for new books.

Edith Drayson, the school's head of careers, watches approvingly. She is in no doubt about the value of the company programme. "They learn to be organised, for a start. They learn a bit of time management, which was completely absent until they started this. They also learn to operate as a team, to compromise. Here they have to take others' views into account.

"It stands them in very good stead to get through university admissions. The academic side is only part of it - their references and whether they can present themselves are important too. And it's wonderful that they'll have something like this to show for it."

The girls have also learned a great deal about one another. The deputy managing director, Fiona Welch, says: "What's come out in doing Young Enterprise is the different aspects of people's personalities that we never realised were there. People have come out who you wouldn't expect to be good at what they have ended up doing."

Young Enterprise also runs Team Enterprise, specially designed for young people with learning difficulties, and Project Business, aimed at 14 and 15-year-olds.

An independent survey of head teachers, pupils involved in the schemes and their parents has found they have high educational value, build self-confidence and help students to develop skills which will be useful in their working lives.

But Young Enterprise's chief executive, Peter Westgarth, says the climate for growth of such schemes in the UK is not perfect. He is calling for a national debate on the role of businesses in education.

"There's no clear strategy for engaging business in the process of supporting young people in their education.

"At the moment we're trying to ask business to do everything. And they can't - there are not enough business people out there to be mentors to every young person who requires one.

"If we don't clarify for business where they can best employ their efforts then we're going to lose the interest of business people. We're going to have them not feeling that they're making tremendous progress.

"I believe there are some key activities that business should be focusing on, and if we were helping them and driving a campaign with the business community towards those activities, we'd serve our young people much better."

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