The Issue: Enterprise schools - Can we teach the businessmen of tomorrow?

5th December 2008 at 00:00
A growing number of academies are organising themselves along business lines, hoping to create `self-determining citizens', but detractors say a recession might not be the best time, writes Yojana Sharma

As the street artist Banksy said, a lot of people don't take the initiative because no one told them to.

Alan Roach, principal of the Chalvedon and Barstable schools federation, which comprises two large business and enterprise schools in Basildon, Essex, quotes the popular artist as he explains his rationale for teaching entrepreneurship alongside enterprise.

What is missing from the subject-based curriculum, he says, is for pupils to be "self-determining citizens", who think for themselves and take the initiative. "These are the same skills identified in entrepreneurs: passion, initiative, teamwork, determination and risk-taking."

Entrepreneurship projects, such as setting up virtual companies, mini- start ups, business games and motivational visits from well-known entrepreneurs have been around in schools for some time. But the entrepreneurial ethos and curriculum is much newer.

Anne Evans, chief executive of the charity Head Teachers into Industry, which links schools with business, says: "They say that in a school with an entrepreneurial atmosphere, you can feel it. It's not so much a subject as an all-pervasive philosophy."

She believes it takes courage: "Heads of schools with an entrepreneurship culture are very powerful; sometimes they are mavericks. They have a strong sense of moral and social purpose."

Darwen Aldridge Community Academy in Blackburn, which opened in September, is the first academy with entrepreneurship as its specialism. Brendan Loughran, its principal, is combining an entrepreneurial ethos with a cross-disciplinary entrepreneurship curriculum in a newly devised approach (see panel story).

But, in the wider world, there is some debate about whether entrepreneurship can be taught in schools.

Jacek Brant, lecturer in business and economics education at London University's Institute of Education, says: "I'm not convinced you can teach it. Such schools are trying to be cutting edge and different, but they are entering a sphere that hasn't been fully thought through."

There is no tried and tested off-the-shelf entrepreneurship curriculum. Schools such as the Darwen Aldridge Academy say their curriculum is different from the more common enterprise curriculum, which also has many variations.

Jade Parkinson Hill, the academy's vice-principal for entrepreneurship, who has a commercial background, says: "It goes further than teaching enterprise. We've taken a broad definition of entrepreneurship; we aren't pigeon-holing it and saying we want to create the next generation of business people. For us it is about attitude, skills, knowledge and experience."

But just as the buzzword "creativity" soon came to mean "thinking" rather than being told, entrepreneurship appears to encompass anything that involves doing rather than being shown.

In some schools, it includes organising sporting events and fund-raising. Running a radio station and even setting up student councils have been dubbed "entrepreneurship", in some cases.

Social entrepreneurship - injecting business skills into charity events - is also a mainstay, perhaps the most important in Mr Roach's vision.

But detractors say many of these activities are just extra-curricular pursuits that have been pushed out of an overcrowded national curriculum, which academies, with the luxury of an extended day, are bringing back rebranded as entrepreneurship activities.

A number of European countries, including France, Germany and The Netherlands, have had entrepreneurship education in upper secondary schools for mopre than 10 years. But the case for the approach has not yet been proven.

Jonathan Potter, of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and an entrepreneurship education expert, says: "It is an area where more evaluation work is required. You need a long-term study where you compare students with those who have had no entrepreneurship education.

"These schools (specialist academies) believe that entrepreneurship education will make a difference to the propensity of some students to start a business some years later. But how do you assess that? You can ask students if they feel encouraged to start a business, but it's difficult to say whether they would have started a business anyway.

"A lot of entrepreneurship grows out of necessity, because of unemployment and poverty and because young people have no other option," says Dr Potter.

A study published this year on a leading entrepreneurship education programme in Amsterdam found that its effect on pupils' intention to become entrepreneurs was, in fact, slightly negative.

Leaving aside the long-term effects, even within schools it is hard to test what is being learnt. Ms Parkinson Hill agrees that assessment is a challenge the Darwen Aldridge Academy is still grappling with, although the National Foundation for Educational Research has published some assessment models.

Dr Brant says: "The problem arises when you try to measure entrepreneurial outcomes. You might be measuring something that is not an entrepreneurship skills but a mathematical or economic skill."

Meanwhile, teachers report that dedicated entrepreneurship lessons may enthuse some pupils, but they can also generate too many car-washing, Christmas card and bakery "businesses".

This may not matter: the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which conducts research on entrepreneurial activity, found that the majority of entrepreneurial businesses offer products or services with which people are already familiar. Only 10 per cent are likely to be new or different.

Still, it begs the questions: what is entrepreneurship education for and is it being taught well?

"We should recognise that entrepreneurship education is contentious," Dr Brant says. "The question we should be asking is: should such an activity be in the curriculum? Does it possess the qualities of education, which is to turn out well-rounded people, or is it just preparing people for the work place?"

The Confederation of British Industry believes entrepreneurship education can impart soft skills and improve school leavers' employability. But Richard Wainer, its head of education and skills policy, says: "CBI members would be really concerned if history and geography were edged out. They want well-rounded individuals.

"Business leaders don't expect school leavers to come out of the education system business-ready. They will be looking for them to be employable, so basic skills are absolutely vital."

Entrepreneurship education certainly ticks many of the Government's boxes: it is skills based, cross-disciplinary and ideal for personalised learning.

Research shows that entrepreneurs are important for economic growth, they create jobs and make a country more competitive. With high youth unemployment, it could become an important career choice.

Even so, Mr Wainer cautions: "Entrepreneurship education takes a long time to reap economic benefits." Besides, the current economic downturn may not be the best time to embark upon such specialisms.

"It's a bad thing to encourage young people to start businesses in a recession, particularly if they are consumer services that rely on a local market that is shrinking and there is no innovation involved," Dr Potter says.

Mr Loughran disagrees: "In difficult times, it's probably more important to teach young people what entrepreneurship is all about. It's not just about business and balance sheets, it's about resilience and determination." These qualities will remain with pupils even after the recession is over, he says.

And even Dr Potter says: "The point about entrepreneurship in schools is not necessarily to get them into business at 18, but to make them ready for a time in the future when they might."

Chris Jones, vice-principal of the Chalvedon and Barstable schools federation, says the method encourages pupils to "break down the boundaries". "We see more pupils willing to make these (entrepreneurial) moves," he says, and that can only be good.

One young entrepreneur, Sabirul Islam, certainly found that an encouraging attitude among teachers at Swanlea Business and Enterprise College in London's East End, helped him on his way. At 14, he founded his first company, Veyron Technology, designing websites. Now 19, he attributes a lot of what he has achieved to Simon Firth, his enterprise teacher, who encouraged entrepreneurial attitudes.

"It was all because of Mr Firth saying `Make the most of what is around you,'" he says. "I loved what Swanlea did. Yes, there are things that can be taught, but its down to you how far you go.

"If all the schools in the country did that (taught entrepreneurship), England would be a massive centre of enterprise."


Brendan Loughran, principal of Darwen Aldridge Community Academy in Blackburn, emphasises that entrepreneurship - the school's specialism - is not a bolt-on subject but a different way of organising the school and teaching across the curriculum.

It starts with the way the school is run - "like a workplace," he says - with the pupils' uniform a business-style suit. The school day is organised like a work day in two main sessions.

"Entrepreneurship does exist in other schools, but the difference is that we are so upfront about it," says Mr Loughran. "Our student planner features famous entrepreneurs."

Entrepreneurship is taught once a week, with pupils devising, planning and setting up virtual small businesses as a team. But it is also brought into subject and cross-curricular teaching, so maths may involve solving economics problems, and science may involve researching an innovative idea, such as the benefits of locally produced food. In another class, this might be developed into a small business.

Entrepreneurship permeates the entire ethos and culture of the academy, teaching life skills and attitudes at the same time.

"We have six entrepreneurship themes: passion, creativity, teamwork, risk taking, determination and problem solving. There is nothing unique about these, but we wanted to build our curriculum around them, and that was unique," says Mr Loughran.

"Lessons are devised to instil these values. It also means recruiting teachers who can infuse that go-ahead, can-do way of thinking.

Ron Aldridge, the academy's sponsor and founder of Capita Group, a business process outsourcing company, says he wants to encourage young people to at least consider the option of starting a business.

But Mr Loughran has a broader purpose: "Even if children do not go into business when they leave the academy, they will be broader, well-rounded individuals. We have already seen dramatic increases in motivation with our approach."

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