'We've got it all wrong'
There's an estate agent in London's Sloane Street, just four minutes from Harrods, and the properties in its window are not cheap. One fifth-floor apartment "lends itself ideally for entertaining" and costs pound;2 million. It's already under offer.
Never mind. Continue up the cramped staircase to the office above, and a sign tells you that you are at the "Academy of Enterprise - releasing the national potential". Step right in through the glass-panelled door. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
A handful of graduates work at a central circular desk. One stands as you enter. China mugs clink in the small kitchen, then a big man in a suit ambles over. "This is Mr Reed," says the young person who greeted you. "Would you like coffee?" She could have said Professor Reed, as her boss is honorary professor of enterprise and innovation at Royal Holloway University of London and visiting professor of enterprise at London Guildhall University. But then Alec Reed CBE, who left school at 16 and learned accountancy in the evenings while working as an office boy, has devoted most of his life to running a business.
And an extremely successful business. For Reed Executive, the recruitment agency he started 40 years ago with just pound;74, now boasts more than 280 branches. Its online operation dominates the internet jobs market. The company also runs the Government's New Deal schemes for the unemployed in inner-London's Hackney and North Essex, and Employment Zones in London, Liverpool and Doncaster.
This has made Mr Reed a rich man - his personal fortune is estimated at pound;50 million. But it has also given him a wealth of insight into the nature of education and employment. That's why he lectures on a variety of work-related subjects and why his advice is valued by David Blunkett. It's also why he was recently made president of the Economics and Business Education Association, a group of 2,500 secondary school business and economics teachers.
The last role is significant, for Alec Reed wants to revolutionise the way children are prepared for the world of work by focusing on these areas of the curriculum.
"We've got it all wrong," was his verdict on the education system last autumn, when the Academy of Enterprise, set up as a not-for-profit organisation to promote enterprise and creativity, published three pamphlets by the think-tank Demos, the Employment Policy Institute and the Smith Institute. Those pamphlets introduced the concept of "Peoplism".
"It used to be land that made you rich," Mr Reed explained at the launch. "Then it was capital and the factories that were built which created wealth. But now it's the knowledge and creative skills of people that make the difference. This is peoplism.
"But let's be clear - peoplism may be no kinder than capitalism. The winners in peoplism are those with portable enterprise skills, such as problem-solving and communication, and those who can think and act creatively. People without those skills are in danger of being left behind.
"That's why we say that enterprise must be introduced at the heart of lessons and lectures - to prepare our young people for the new challenges of the workplace."
There was fighting talk then of tearing up the curriculum and replacing it with something fit for the new age. Now this softly-spoken grandfather with a passion for doing portraits in pastels is attempting to colour in those bold outlines.
"The Government wants enterprise taught in all schools, and so how can you do it?" Not, he emphasises, by teaching "employability", which amounts to little more than showing children how to produce CVs. "It's much better to build the individual into something, and the CV will follow."
Another problem with teaching employability is that the jobs market is constantly changing. "Have they got to come back every 12 months for a quick fix to make them employable, or can we empower them so they've got some of this thing we call enterprise to look after themselves?" Which isn't to be confused with teaching children to become entrepreneurs. "You can't just pick entrepreneurs out," says Mr Reed. "They will emerge. It's much better to create a system of teaching enterprise. Some people will choose to use their enterprise abilities to become entrepreneurs. Others will become social workers. We need enterprising people in everything. And it's a win-win situation. If you make kids enterprising, not only can they help themselves, but they add something to society as well."
Enterprise as a subject, he says, would have to be examinable. "And you've got to devote time to it - perhaps 10 or even 20 per cent of the school week."
Mr Reed says: "There's a complete disjointing in the education system. We have 75 graduate trainees in the company, and they are very intelligent. But it quickly becomes obvious that they are completely ill-equipped for a working life. You need a thread that carries on from school to university to work. And enterprise seems to be the best thread for that - even better than business, because a lot of these people won't go into business."
But how might young people actually be taught the "soft skills" of peoplism?
The subject is dealt with in one of those three pamphlets. The author, Matthew Horne, says the school system "needs to adopt enterprise learning as a way of delivering each of the subjects in the school curriculum".
He says enterprise is neither a subject nor a cross-curricular theme, "but a style of teaching and learning". Enterprise education "means developing qualities such as the ability to tackle problems, take initiatives, persevere, be flexible and work in teams".
Having personally taught enterprise to graduates, Alec Reed has many exercises and activities to draw upon. Some originated at Harvard Business School, some are techniques used by businesses, and a few are his own ideas. But most, he believes, could be easily adapted for use in secondary or even primary schools.
He produces a sheet of paper on which a student has drawn a map of the British Isles and jotted down a dozen ideas - some tongue-in-cheek, others more serious - for eradicating the north-south divide (introduce anti-London weighting; start a northerners-only lottery to create more northern millionaires). "We start a session by getting them to solve problems like this," says Mr Reed. "We call it mental aerobics. Then we get them to invent the problems. It's the sort of thing kids like. A lot of it is presentation."
Much of the work is geared towards bringing out quieter members of the class, as in "talking point", in which students are selected at random to debate a controversial subject. "It's like jumping in a swimming pool - they start swimming pretty quickly."
But how do you examine a subject such as enterprise? Alec Reed suggests a combination of continuous assessment and exams.
And if the word enterprise sounds a little too reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher (in fact, Mr Reed has made large donations to the Labour Party), terms such as personal development and self-awareness might sound more palatable. Students are shown how to do a personal "Swot" analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). This is one of many examples in enterprise education of a technique usually employed by companies being scaled down to the individual, or "MEplc", as Mr Reed puts it.
Similarly, he says, themes such as money can be taught "first at a MEplc level, then at a company level, and finally at a state level".
Reality, "or what the hell's going on", is a recurring theme. "We want to encourage people to look around them, to keep alert and not think of themselves as islands."
Accordingly, students are introduced to cartoon characters such as Ike and Budi. Ike (I Kill Everything) is the sort of colleague who knocks down new ideas on principle. American business schools have been arming their students against him for years. "But we've also got our own character called Budi, which stands for Bet You Drop It," says Reed. "I've suffered from Budi because I've been the boss for 40 years. Nobody ever kills my ideas, but they drop them. They go away saying that's a brilliant idea. But then they change it."
He produces a slide that shows what Budi might do to a Picasso portrait. "The face is all over the place and it's worth pound;5 million. But after Budi gets at it, it's all sorted out and it's not worth 5p. The good ideas are often quirky. But someone with too conventional a mind tidies them up and mucks them up."
So does he believe quirky-minded entrepreneurs are born that way? "In most cases," he says, "entrepreneurs are created by circumstances." But he remembers the management guru Charles Handy telling him there was a genetic link between entrepreneurs and artists. The idea appealed. "It's about creativity," he says. "Business is an art. And successful business is about being different."
As for enterprise, that's about confidence. "I asked our people in Liverpool what subjects the kids lack when they come in, and everyone agreed that it's not subjects, it's a sense of being. I've suggested to the minister that this is as important as the New Deal. In fact if you got it right, it could replace the New Deal."
That's a big "if", of course - especially if Budi gets his hands on the project.