Reward enterprise in front of the class too

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
A leading Scottish financial journalist, Alf Young, has posed the question, "Can we teach schoolchildren to be the next Richard Branson?" Several influences led him to raise the issue.

One was a recent speech by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who stated, with reference to future economic prospects: "Crucial to our success will be our ability to embed a culture of enterprise right across the country, stretching from the classroom to the boardroom."

Another stimulus was the work of the entrepreneur, Tom Hunter, who has sought to promote enterprise in schools and provided substantial cash support for various ventures designed to do precisely that. Then there was the Scottish Executive publication of 2002, Determined to Succeed, which presented role models of successful business men and women.

Scotland has tended to be more resistant to the entrepreneurial spirit than other parts of the United Kingdom, despite the achievements of a number of prominent individuals. It is not hard to think of reasons why this should be so. Despite New Labour makeovers, the political climate here has been shaped by a history of trade union activism and the dominance of municipal socialism. Many (though not all) Scots are unimpressed by conspicuous wealth and are disposed to form severe judgments of corporate greed and "fat cat" executives.

Teachers may be particularly inclined to take this view. They are often "first generation" entrants to higher education and have been motivated to enter teaching partly by a desire to do something that is socially worthwhile rather than materially rewarding. They would be uneasy about producing a generation of youngsters whose actions are driven principally by the profit motive. For them, the characters of Del Boy and Arthur Daley may have a certain fictional charm but their real-life versions are much less attractive.

Even Blair's Third Way, embodied in the idea of the "social market", presents many teachers with problems. It is not surprising that a recent survey found that only 30 per cent of teachers were persuaded that the public-private partnerships which have been responsible for the programme of new and refurbished schools represent good value for money. And when it comes to "education for citizenship," teachers attach more weight to civic activism than economic enterprise.

Some entrepreneurs would, for quite different reasons, agree that schools should not see their primary function as the production of tycoons such as Branson and Hunter. They would make the point that people with that kind of drive and initiative cannot be turned out to a formula. Such people have exceptional qualities - not all admirable - that resist easy replication.

The idea of teaching imagination and flair within an institution, the school, that in so may other ways discourages these qualities, seems contradictory.

However, much depends on the precise interpretation that is given to enterprise. As Alf Young says, what really matters is not some inflated aspiration to produce super-rich whizz-kids but "developing, as widely as possible in the next generation, a confidence in what they can contribute and an attitude to change and risk that can help transform any organisation, large or small, public or private, mainstream or entrepreneurial".

For this to happen, however, would require greater responsiveness to change within the teaching profession itself, including those of us who work in teacher education. Too often, new entrants are encouraged to "play safe" rather than show resourcefulness and independence in their approach to learning and teaching. This leads to a form of professional socialisation that is defensive and conservative.

If we really want to encourage enterprise in pupils, a good start would be to reward the same quality in novice teachers.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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