Year 9 students experience the cut and thrust of commerce at a simulated business day. Crispin Andrews reports
"You have 10 more seconds to get your Valentine's cards in. pound;15 maximum! If you are late you will get nothing!" No sooner has the announcer barked his last word than the relative calm below the stage is transformed into a frenzied hive of activity. Panicking students rush from all sides brandishing their designs, while colleagues look on helplessly as the countdown nears completion.
It has been left until the last few seconds. Will the runners be in time? One group looks unconcerned; they have decided not to get involved in the mad scramble. Sniggering, one of them notices that a friend from another class has not made it to the stage in time. "What a waste of time, effort and money," she mourns sarcastically.
But there will be no repercussions. Packed into their school hall, the 100 or so Year 9 students simply don't have time to argue. The harsh reality of the business world has descended on Fullbrook School in Surrey and, in this jungle, only the strong will survive.
The voice at the front of the room belongs to Richard Allen. In his role as operational director of the Spelthorne and Runnymede Education Business Partnership he is managing the Bradford business game. Richard explains how the game, a manufacturing industry micro-simulation, gives students a taster of the demands of real-life business.
"To do well in the game each group must collaborate, make quick decisions and work to strict deadlines," he says. "Making the day as 'real' as possible also adds a sense of fun and excitement to proceedings."
Fullbrook's school hall has become a workshop within which companies vie for supremacy. Their task: to design and sell at maximum profit a four-page blank booklet. Within the firms, each student has a specific role. While sales managers try to drive a hard bargain with the three members of the Fullbrook teaching staff who are acting as buyers, accountants attempt to balance the books.
Two accounts can be opened at the bank on the stage - a current account which is freely accessible and a deposit account, which, although it accrues 10 per cent interest every half an hour, requires 10 minutes'
notice in order to access funds.
At the same time, prices given by the buyers will not only depend on the quality of the product and the speed at which it can be produced, but also by the way in which the sales managers present their company's design.
Making up the team are marketing and quality-control managers, a managing director, and even a general dogsbody.
"Decisions have to be made," explains Richard Allen. "Of course you want your money to accrue maximum interest, but having enough available at the right time to buy the necessary supplies is important if the deals done by the sales manager are to be honoured."
Richard takes up the microphone once more. This time he announces that a prospective client from Australia has come forward. The client is prepared to pay up to pound;40 for a kangaroo-shaped booklet, but a strict deadline - 25 minutes - must be met.
This sets the students thinking. Should efforts be concentrated on making a few of these "specials", which they can sell at a higher rate but only for a set period, or on their bread-and-butter blank product, which they can sell regularly? Already the two most successful companies have realised that organising two production lines with no one sitting idle will enable them to produce both.
Other real-life manufacturing industry situations, opportunities and problems are woven into the game. Earlier an industrial dispute led to the price of paper being doubled, while a visiting health-and-safety inspector levied fines on companies that had left raw materials lying around. Even break time becomes a bank holiday, during which no one is allowed on the "premises".
Although there is a competitive side to this game - the most profitable firm with the best advertisement and slogan is judged to be the winner - educationally, it is the process in which the students are involved that is most vital.
"Decision making, balancing speed and quality, collaboration and working to deadlines are all applicable to both the world of business and academic study," explains Richard. "Requesting a basic everyday product from each firm allows the students to concentrate their energies on this process."
To be successful, planning is important especially when things are not going swimmingly in every quarter. As advisers from businesses circulate, they notice that the beaming smile of a swaggering sales manager has just been wiped from his face. Twenty booklets in half an hour - no problem.
Except no one bothered to tell the firm's accountant to get the necessary funds released. At another table a company managing director looks sheepish. She has just returned from a meeting with the other MDs and Richard Allen, to find that, while her firm's booklets were being sold for 30p a shot, others were fetching from pound;1 to pound;1.60. "I think our sales manager needs a kick up the backside!" she mutters.