Beware the Dragon

2nd December 2011 at 00:00

When I was a gal, there were only two entrepreneurs: Richard Branson and Derek Trotter. One was a barely believable bundle of adolescent enthusiasm, grasping at millionaire dreams with ever-more outlandish capers. The other drove a Robin Reliant.

Now, they're everywhere, relentlessly pushing smoothies, bras and bagless vacuums. They must be mainstream, because they're even cropping up in FE, offering BTECs to officially validate highly motivated, fledgling Dragons.

In the world of Dragons' Den and The Apprentice, anyone can apparently be buffed, polished and popped into a suit. The inference for FE is that any student can become the next Bill Gates (except Bill dropped out, but we don't mention that).

I find the "everyone is an entrepreneur" mantra tricky to swallow as it takes away the notion of natural aptitude and creates unreasonable demands and expectations both of and from the student. I could work day and night with the most talented teaching professionals to enhance my maths skills. Without doubt they could raise my level of understanding, but it wouldn't come easy to me.

And so to FE. Any new syllabus that provides the opportunity to develop dormant talent is, of course, a worthy use of time. Teaching students a set of business skills that may prove to be of paramount importance to their chosen vocation is essential. However, as Sarah Dunwell, chief executive of Create - a social enterprise that runs innovative work-based learning - recently said: "Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime. Teach everyone to fish and the whole ecosystem's buggered."

The Peter Jones Enterprise Academy (PJEA) runs courses at 17 FE colleges that encourage entrepreneurial activity. As part of its "learning by doing" ethos, PJEA supplies students to its corporate partners for real-life business experience. And many other colleges are making similar efforts to whittle down the next generation of go-getters from the sparkiest teens: among other enterprises, City College Norwich has launched Interim Records, which has released a rap promoting the institute on YouTube (http:bit.lyr5D86B).

But there is a problem with institutionalising entrepreneurship: it's often a counter-institutional activity. While we can teach the skills that support and propagate innovation and chutzpah in our students, we can't guarantee them the spoils that are paraded on TV and we must manage their expectations as such. Entrepreneurialism is about more than just taught skills. It's a state of mind: something that we need to identify, nurture and encourage, but not something we can supply on demand.

Sarah Simons teaches functional skills English in an inner-city FE college.

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