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Risky business: training future entrepreneurs

In the present economic climate, to go on preparing significant numbers of students for jobs that may well not exist - using qualifications that are no longer fit for purpose - would be at total variance with the mission and tradition of FE colleges. We should be creators of enterprise as well as providers of skilled labour. Colleges and their leaders have to be entrepreneurial. We need to produce students who can enter the workplace with confidence and with the skills to start their own business or to add value to existing enterprises.

Therefore an entrepreneurial learning environment is vital to students' achievements. Approaches to enterprise training in the UK, while valuable, are in danger of becoming a franchised appendage grafted on to a college that takes no account of the distinctive culture and values that nurture enterprise. As a sector, we need to show active leadership. We must interpret rules creatively, network skilfully, muster resources and persist in bringing about change.

The US, with more than 6,000 courses, is a world leader in enterprise training. Some of these courses provide little more than a knowledge-based business curriculum, often targeted at unemployed adults desperate to get on the earnings ladder. At the very top, however, students at US colleges take courses that encourage "continued innovation, fearless experimentation and structured chaos". The teachers are rewarded for "entrepreneurial vitality in curriculum" and "theatrical improvisation in pedagogy".

Social entrepreneurs, as well as those who are profit-based, are an integral part of the coaching teams. They encourage students to take risks, to accept that creativity and failure go hand in hand. They also teach them the value of learning from failure. This approach can only take root in a college that actively promotes, values and invests in enterprise at every level; where creativeness, innovation and risk-taking are in the very DNA of the organisation.

A shift to more practical learning could better meet student needs and would also enable colleges to offer better value for money. Expensive contact teaching, which too often happens in predictable environments, would be transformed through a model that relies more on student teamwork, self-reliance and tutor mentoring than on long periods of time spent in activities planned and supervised by tutors.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has recognised the failure of the British economy, for more than a decade, to generate the highly skilled positions needed to match the supply of student labour from colleges and universities. Many small businesses will only employ individuals who can add financial value from the outset, so students emerging from North Hertfordshire College (NHC) will need to be equipped to add that value by understanding business and operating with confidence in a self-employedmixed-employment environment.

At NHC, the creation of an enterprise campus with a business link on site is already a reality. The first business ventures - a franchise employing 20 students and a recruitment agency finding employment for students - are in place. But students will only develop the appropriate skills and attitudes in colleges which value entrepreneurial culture and whose leaders are role models for its application in the real world.

The Learning and Skills Improvement Service has recently invested pound;1.4 million in 43 entrepreneurship projects. It should now consider the strategic implications of this research. A new paradigm for leadership and for learning will require significant investment in a new professionalism and new teaching methods.

Fintan Donohue is principal of North Hertfordshire College and a Learning and Skills Improvement Service council member.

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