Where the skills to succeed shine through

27th January 2012 at 00:00
As secondaries in East Ayrshire unveiled new enterprise centres, business leaders were on hand to give pupils a bit of sage advice

For one young sixth-year student, the launch of East Ayrshire's new enterprise fund for schools contains a life-changing moment. After an inspirational speech by entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter, she plucks up the courage to put a question from the floor to Scotland's top entrepreneur: "What use is university and would you recommend it for someone who wants to go into business?"

The answer, St Joseph's Academy pupil Siobhan Connelly admits later, made up her mind for her. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do. Now I know."

It would be good to learn just how many of the 90 senior pupils from schools around East Ayrshire were similarly influenced by the morning's events, which also included a bravado sales pitch for engineering as a career by Dr Peter Hughes, chief executive of Scottish Engineering.

Both Sir Tom and Dr Hughes belong to a group of 11 "business leaders" whom East Ayrshire has enlisted to give added value to its pound;1 million Schools Business Enterprise Fund. Each of its nine secondary schools will use its share of this fund to develop its own Business Enterprise and Skills Centre, explains head of schools Andrew Sutherland (now education director at Falkirk).

"They're all different (see panel, right), but what they have in common is the aim of supporting youngsters from 14 to 18 to be business-ready - to have the range of skills and attitudes needed to be successful. It's about confidence, resilience, risk-taking.

"Today is a public launch of what's happening across our schools. We're going to follow it up with a similar event for teachers, in which they get to work with our business leaders to develop their skills and attitudes."

Around the hall, the motivation is over and the hard graft is about to begin. Guided by a business leader and a teacher at each table, budding entrepreneurs from all of East Ayrshire's secondary schools are tasked with preparing a two-minute pitch for a new product. The fact that the new products look particularly unsaleable - a packet of petals, an animal toothbrush, a rubber dog toy - is not deterring them at all.

"You could hang it from your belt to hold a bottle."

"You could pull a heavy bag with it."

"If you get stuck in the mud you could tie a rope on and pull you out."

"What will we call it? What about stretchi-camp?

"Multi-camp, multi-stretch?"

"How much will we sell it for?"

"It's injection-moulded," says David Ritson, St Joseph's principal teacher for curriculum, enterprise and design, "So it's mass-produced and just pennies to make."

"We'll sell it for pound;3 then."

"We'll make it look nicer, with colours, designs and patterns."

"We could get companies to brand it."

"We could make it girly."

At the next table, girly is already in evidence, as the plain wooden lemon-squeezer they've been given now has a lacy ribbon round it. Siobhan and sixth-year colleague Louise Sloan have been chosen to make the pitch to one of the business leaders - who first play musical chairs so that they don't hear from the same kids they've been coaching.

Neither girl bats an eyelid when they get Sir Tom, who listens attentively as they try to sell their squeezer, before complimenting them on their pitch and staying to chat about The Apprentice.

The aim is not to sell squeezers, of course, or petals or rubber dog toys; it's to get youngsters working in teams and looking beyond the obvious, and to foster friendly chat with successful entrepreneurs. Learning how these people look at the world and make things happen has been an eye- opener, says St Joseph's sixth-year student Liam Gallagher.

"These guys with millions don't have to work, so I wondered what gets them out of their bed in the morning. I liked Tom Hunter's answer. He said not for the money but to help other people. I fancy being an entrepreneur and I've a few ideas I'd like to work on when I leave school - to do with websites and renewable energy."

The traditional Scottish emphasis on the academic is no longer a good model for schools, says Mr Sutherland. "Our staying-on rates post-16 have been rising, in some cases up to 90 per cent. But Highers are aimed at the 20 per cent academic group. So what we're doing recognises that, for the majority of young people, a bolt-on to an academic curriculum isn't good enough.

"We want proper pathways for every young person - and we want to tune in to the local and national needs, in terms of regeneration, employment and economic growth."

That wider role for enterprise education is underscored by the presence throughout the day of Fiona Lees, chief executive of East Ayrshire Council. "It's about education, economic development and employability," she says. "Growing businesses is how we're going to meet the challenges we face, and our young people are where we start. The contribution of the business leaders is crucial."

They've been involved from the beginning, she says, (see panel, left). "We were looking for their time and their ideas. Without missing a beat they all said yes. So we've got Sir Norman Drummond from Columba 1400, who's going to work with our staff and get them to think entrepreneurially. Willie Mackay, the regional manager for Clydesdale Bank, will get his area managers to support every school.

"I picked up the phone to Peter Hughes because he's always on the radio and is the most positive person. He was dead keen. They all were, once they heard what we had in mind."

Besides access to the business leaders, St Joseph's receives pound;125,000 from the fund, says headteacher Alan Ward, which is being used to set up an enterprise academy in school. "Being enterprising is about skills and creativity. It's about having ideas, determination to see them through, and a willingness to get up and do things. That's when learning comes alive.

"We're setting money aside for every department to make some contribution to the enterprise academy. So biology, for example, is looking at animal husbandry, setting up allotments, and food and tourism. It is a big idea and it is complicated, but it's going to work for us."

The funding is one-off but the aim is to create something sustainable, says depute headteacher Ben Davis. "It has to be spent in a year but have an impact well into the future. So we've been working with a social enterprise called Space Unlimited to set up four real businesses in school.

"Every department has a financial stake in one of them and their work will play some part in the business. We're also converting a classroom into a hub for the enterprise academy, where meetings and events can happen.

"We're not working with just one set of pupils. Enterprise is for every young person. Whether they leave school to become a painter, a lawyer or an entrepreneur like Tom Hunter, they still need the same set of skills."

So what was the decision young Siobhan took after listening to Mr Hunter? "I wasn't sure whether to go to university or start work right away, get trained up in a company and then start a business of my own," she says.

"I'm interested in international business, employment relations and law. Tom Hunter didn't just give me a standard answer. I got personal feedback about his own experience and his kids. He told me some entrepreneurs succeed without going to uni but that's a lot harder nowadays.

"So I've made up my mind. I'm going to university."


Business Enterprise and Skills Centres around the schools

St Joseph's Academy An enterprise academy, four businesses and the involvement of every department.

Doon Academy A shop in Dalmellington town centre and an online business selling products made in school.

Kilmarnock Academy A school radio station to improve literacy and a cafe to boost hospitality skills

Auchinleck and Cumnock academies A pre-apprenticeship centre at Knockroon development, with pupils gaining skills in construction, architecture and engineering.

Stewarton Academy Fourth-year leavers mentored by local businesses, while senior pupils take part in leadership and skills programmes.

Loudoun Academy Expertise in retail, marketing and putting business models together from the Co-operative Society.

James Hamilton Academy A school shop with pupils producing and selling items, in person and online.

Grange Academy State-of-the-art equipment, so students can manufacture to commercial standard.

Business leaders

Norman Drummond, Drummond International

Ian and Anne Hope, Hope Homes Scotland

Dr Peter Hughes OBE, Scottish Engineering

Sir Tom Hunter, West Coast Capital

Willie Mackie, Clydesdale Bank

Marie Macklin, Klin Group

Keith Murray, Lochaven International

David Ross, Keppie Design

Craig Stevenson, Braehead Foods

Mark Strudwick, The Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust

Heather Dunk, Kilmarnock College


The question from Siobhan about the value of university is one Sir Tom Hunter gets often when talking to young people.

He says afterwards, "My answer has changed over the years because the world has changed. I've maybe put some people off university in the past, because I've said it didn't really prepare me for what I was going to do.

"But we now have empirical evidence - we did the research at the Hunter Centre - showing that people now get their businesses going, especially in the technology sectors, faster and with less risk if they have that level of education."

There is also the fact that universities themselves have changed over the years, he says. "They've been listening to people with experience of business and are more aware of what is needed now."

Young people make the hardest audience, says the man who has spoken to business leaders and decision-makers all over the world. "But I love talking to them. I'd have liked being a teacher, I think. If there's one message I want them to take away from today, it's about attitude.

"We can't control where we're born or the environment we're brought up in - or what Silvio Berlusconi will do next.

"But we can control how we approach people, how we get things done, whether we're going to be positive or negative when we get up in the morning.

"Every successful person I've met has a very positive attitude. I want to enthuse these kids and give them a framework to go away and do great things. And, hopefully, some will come back and do them in Scotland."

Photo credit: David Gordon

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