Give them support, resources and the chance to work for themselves and what do you get? Young entrepreneurs, says Hannah Frankel. Take three adolescent boys, not particularly interested in school, and add a range of special needs, including ADHD. Things are not, you sense, going to end well. But you would be wrong. Through fostering their entrepreneurial spirit, The Forest School in Wokingham, a business and enterprise college, has seen the 16-year-olds thrive.
Last year, it set up a version of Dragons' Den, whereby the boys pitched their business plan to a panel of pupils. Their idea - organic fishing bait that resulted in anglers catching much larger fish - impressed the judges, who offered the boys the money they needed in return for 20 per cent of the profits.
The boys resolutely rejected the deal and decided to go it alone. Soon after, a record-breaking carp was caught that had fed on their secret crab meat recipe. The result was an appearance on BBC South Today, the front cover of Angling Times, and soaring sales in London, Kent and Devon.
"They have loved the publicity," says Matthew Evans, assistant head, "and it's created a buzz among everyone around them. It's the best thing to have happened in their families for years."
The boys' passion for fishing has driven the success of the product, says Matthew, but it has also improved their attitude in the classroom. "They now feel indebted to the school because we've recognised their success and helped them raise their profile," he says. "Their self-esteem is so much better."
Such inventiveness is likely to sweep across the UK from Monday, as schools take part in this year's Enterprise Week. The flagship event is the Make Your Mark Challenge, a one-day enterprise competition for key stage 4 pupils. Teams of four to six pupils will be asked to design a product, service, event or attraction in response to a brief revealed online on the day. The top entry from each school will be judged by a panel and the 20 best teams from each region will go forward to the regional finals later this month and then the national finals in early December.
Last year, more than 20,000 pupils took part. The winner of the 2005 challenge was a team from Littlehampton Community School in West Sussex, who set up a souvenir business for the local community. The group has since used its pound;5,000 winnings to buy sophisticated radio equipment and, following an eight-week training programme, has set up a music radio station.
Revamp Radio began life in the canteen, but is now broadcast to 80 per cent of the school at lunch and break times. "There's nothing half-hearted about it," says Colin Langan, a business studies teacher at the school. "We have 12 to 15 DJs who have all shown tremendous commitment. One of our Year 11s is a shy chap, but through the radio his confidence has improved a great deal. He now wants to pursue a career in radio after his A- levels."
Sarah Kempson, another pupil, was determined to make the project a success. "With support growing rapidly and speakers being placed in more and more areas within the school grounds, we can see the radio becoming something big in the future," she says.
Once pupils at Park View School in Birmingham had tasted success, there was no stopping them. Pupils set up a stationery shop last year, as part of the school's bid to secure business and enterprise status. They soon found they lacked the necessary space in classrooms, so moved into the quad, where there are now seven brightly coloured garden sheds, all selling different products.
"It looks a bit like Bournemouth pier," muses Steve Packer, the head of business enterprise at the school. Interested pupils have to convince a steering group of Year 11 pupils and teachers that their products are viable. Only the best are allocated a shed to operate from at break times. Today, teams sell everything from Fairtrade coffee to customised keys, sporting paraphernalia and Islamic jewellery.
Last year, all profits from the businesses went to Oxfam Unwrapped, but this year the co-operative wants the money to go to survivors of the earthquake that hit northern Pakistan in 2005, helping to rebuild a school in the affected area.
"It's very satisfying that all their hard work will result in something tangible," says Steve. "It's given the pupils the opportunity to work as a team independently of teachers. They've loved it."
Matthew Evans agrees that staff must remove themselves from the equation if young people are to become truly entrepreneurial. "Pupils need to take the initiative themselves as opposed to having views imposed upon them," he says. "Instead of forcing them to take part in lots of enterprise programmes that the school has introduced, our goal is to create a culture where they can easily step forward with their own ideas. We give them the resources, support and advice they need and then let them run with it."
The success of Matthew's approach is visible throughout The Forest School. Other pupils have used their commercial acumen to set up a web-design business, provide memory stick engravings and design a computer game. An online trading tool - like a mini eBay - has brought the school together with local primaries and an adult education centre, which can all buy and sell products in a safe, controlled environment.
Meanwhile, Year 7s spend three hours a fortnight on life skills that develop teamwork and problem solving. Other departments are also flying high on the enterprise wave. The music department, for instance, has started African drumming team-building workshops, and is now putting on and marketing its own concerts, alongside the sale of tickets and CDs. Up to 55 per cent of Year 10s will take Edexcel's new applied GCSE in business and communications next year.
All of which impressed the Teaching Awards judges, who last month named Matthew as this year's best enterprise teacher in the UK. Matthew remains modest about his achievements, but encourages every school to tap into business and enterprise opportunities.
"We use clips from Dragons' Den and The Apprentice to compare ideas and assess performances," he says. "Boys in particular find high-profile entrepreneurs very inspirational. They respond to the idea of working for themselves, making money and the status associated with success.
"But they are quite innocent about just how much hard work is involved in being self-employed. They need to start thinking about that now if their ideas are to become a reality."
SIR SETS THE EXAMPLE
Matthew Evans from The Forest School in Wokingham has set up his own company.
The PET (Personal Enterprise Tool) is a software system that allows pupils to assess their own enterprise capabilities, from spotting opportunities to planning, implementing and evaluating the venture.
Pupils at the school have tested the product, designed its logos, created games for the site and built a database to support it, while Matthew is the product development director. The not-for-profit tool has been trialed in 20 schools. For a free trial visit www.petonline.org.uk.