Brendan O'Malley visits a school where girls are given a free rein to develop enterprise skills and learn the importance of man management.
If there's no better way to learn about business than by running one of your own, students at one Shropshire school have been given a head start on their peers. For while some schools encourage pupils to run the tuck shop or even an arm of the local bank, at Moreton Hall girls school there is a burgeoning business empire in miniature.
They run the ticket office of the local railway station, a small farm, a recording studio, the managed phone system, a stationery and fax service, a branch of the Midland Bank, the tuck shop and vending machines, a bus travel service and soon their own radio station.
Every pupil has the chance of becoming a company director by the time they are 17, every girl in the lower sixth form plays a role in one of the enterprise schemes, and everyone can earn a share of the profits relative to the level of office they hold. However, the motivation isn't financial reward (the directors gave themselves Pounds 25 to Pounds 30 each in the annual wage settlement) but about taking responsibility, putting business studies ideas into practice, sound book-keeping and learning how to handle people in a work situation.
"We are trying to put the girls at the front of the queue in the jobs market," says Jonathan Forster, headteacher. "In A-level business studies they all get As and Bs."
The schemes work because they are closely monitored by the teachers of business studies, GNVQ leisure and tourism, and, above all, by Sue Hill, a chartered accountant and former maths teacher who was appointed as the school's enterprise manager and bursar. She sits in on the weekly board meetings, keeps a close eye on the figures and offers a friendly ear to the teenage directors and managers needing advice.
Moreton Hall is public school set in a sedate 16th-century country house in rolling fields on the edge of a village and not far from the hills of north Wales. But the activity at lunchtime resembles a busy town shopping centre. In the stationery shop, where the profit is Pounds 200 to Pounds 300 on a turnover of Pounds 4,000, Holly Hipkins, 16, the stationery director, is helping her assistant Jo Pickup value the stock. "We work out the quantity times cost price," Holly says, "then we fill in the spreadsheet on the computer."
She says they ask around the pupils to see if there are new products that people want. "It's trial and error. We always have the basics, but if someone suggests something, we might buy it in in a small way and see if it sells. If we've got too much, we know not to next time."
Her biggest challenge has been dealing with a dissatisfied parent who had paid the Pounds 4 a term fee which allows parents living abroad to fax messages to their daughters but was not happy with the efficiency of the fax machine. She explained what happened, apologised and gave them a free fax subscription for the next term.
"This has made me more confident," says Holly, "it's about how to delegate, work in a team and deal with people who aren't as agreeable as they could be."
Next door, behind the pinewood facia of the MidBank counter, manager Carrie Tucker and chief cashier Emma Jones, both 16, are serving the last customers of the lunch hour. Pupils can open accounts, pay in, make withdrawals and ring up the mother branch in nearby Chirk to find out their balances. "We check the money and figures each day," says Carrie, "and we have to order more money or send some back if we exceed a total float of Pounds 750."
The bank also services the other enterprises - around Pounds 250 a week is deposited from the vending machines and more than Pounds 20,000 has passed through the branch since it opened.
All the schemes except one are overseen by the umbrella company, Moreton Enterprises, whose directors take more of a middle-management view than the department managers. Company secretary and credits manager Mary Matthews, 17, says in clipped tones that her job is to make sure that "what people say they will do gets done" and that they run their departments smoothly. Finance director Chongo Sokota, 17, says next year she is hoping to see a 2 per cent rise in the gross profit margin.
The most exciting development at the moment is a scheme run by 14 A-level business studies students for entry into the nationwide Young Enterprise awards. They took advantage of the school's investment in Pounds 100,000 worth of commercial studio recording equipment to have produced a tape of tracks by successful local bands and market it locally.
To do this they formed a separate company, Independent Enterprises; issued shares to raise Pounds 250 capital; took advance orders and sales and secured an overdraft on favourable terms.
Finance director Elen Parry, 16, explains: "The studio had just been built and we thought we would be the first people to use it. We employed a sound engineer to record and produce the tape, had it duplicated and it was designed by our marketing director."
Before this could happen the project had to be underwritten with a capital sum, so Elen was dispatched to the Midland Bank with a financial plan, to secure an overdraft. They targeted teenagers and twentysomethings with a mixture of ballads, indie, rock and dance songs - and one song by someone in the school, "to open up the school market". Having chosen bands from the Oswestry area, they tramped around potential outlets in the town and persuaded shops, pubs, car dealers, the Little Chef and the tourist agency to sell on the tape. With 300 of the 400 copies sold at Pounds 6 a go, they are breaking even and will soon be able to pay their shareholders a small dividend.
One lesson learned by managing director of the project, Katy Cundall, 16, was the way theories learned in business studies could be applied in real life. "I went through motivational theory and I could see that it's very hard to motivate anyone. You find a lot of motivation early on then you hit a point when things are not sold and heads go down, you keep hitting peaks and you have to try to keep a balance by spreading the jobs evenly and fairly."
The range of business activity at Moreton Hall is breathtaking. GNVQ leisure and tourism students are dealing with up to 200 passengers a day - and the national railway computerised booking system - at Gobowen station's ticket office, which was taken over by the school's geography teacher, David Lloyd, when it was threatened with closure in 1992. On the farm, which switched out of sheep and turkeys because they proved costly and difficult to look after, two girls are testing the market for spring bulbs.
And next to the recording studio two keen DJs, Rachel Porter and Kathryn Sentance, both 17, have so far raised more than Pounds 3,500 towards the equipment, transmitter and licence needed to set up their own service industry - a radio station to provide music, interviews and information for the rest of the school and maybe draw in revenue by offering training in media or DJ skills to students from other schools.
All the girls stress the benefit these schemes in allowing them to put into practice the ideas they were learning in class. But there's a broader educational value too, an understanding of how to handle people, which comes through clearly in any conversation with them. As Katy Cundall says, "It teaches you a lot about diplomacy and how to treat other people, how to criticise but constructively, by making it sound more like a suggestion. "
Young Enterprise, tel: 01865 311180