We must help students to take off in business

In this time of high unemployment, colleges should encourage young people to spread their wings through enterprise

Back in 1982, when youth unemployment had become a problem in a similar way to now, I had a fascinating role in the Manpower Services Commission, working on pilots for the Youth Training Scheme. On a visit to a small factory in the West Country, I watched a young school-leaver in the quality-control department calculate variances and plot charts with ease. His supervisor told me that despite having no O-levels he had picked it up in a few days. As I saw then - and time and again over a number of months - many only learn when they see the purpose of their lessons. The fourth R is relevance.

A year or so later, I introduced the Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative, a programme that gave schools their first computer-controlled lathes and other technology. I am proud to say that from time to time I come across those who took part in this initiative and it remains remarkable how it motivated young people, especially those who had shown little interest in their lessons until then.

Jump forward many years to 2010, when prime minister David Cameron asked me to join the coalition government to continue these efforts. During my work as adviser on enterprise, I began to realise just how transformational the internet had become - not just with regard to the way we communicate but in its effect on how businesses do business. One consequence is the blossoming of ultra-small companies. Today, just over 19 out of 20 businesses employ fewer than 10 people. Self-employment is rising and a survey by the Royal Society for the Arts reveals that 82 per cent of people who are self-employed find their work more meaningful than a typical job.

My Enterprise For All report (published last month) looks at this issue and explores how we can put enterprise at the heart of our education system. To succeed in a business world that has changed beyond recognition, young people need qualities that qualifications alone cannot provide. What is more, they must be helped to see the relevance of their studies to their future livelihoods, as entrepreneurs or employees.

This is as pertinent for primary schools as it is for universities, but the front line of the enterprise imperative in education is in further education colleges.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of young people emerge from the college system, forming a large part of the talent supply for the UK's legion of small and growing companies. Many acquire highly employable skills, but what they do not get is the experience or training that will enable them to start working for themselves.

Colleges are already vital cogs in local economies, but there is the opportunity to go much further by teaching students not just the essentials of a trade but how they can develop those skills into viable businesses. Not just how to repair cars, for instance, but how to own and run a garage.

Learning to lead

That is why I am calling for a core business module to be introduced to all level 3 vocational qualifications. To become the entrepreneurs of the future, today's construction and hair and beauty students, for example, need to be coached in business planning, cash flow and marketing - in short, what they will need to turn an employee's toolkit into an employer's skill set.

This will not come as news to all within the sector, but although I visited a number of outstanding colleges in the course of producing my report, those that have truly embraced enterprise remain the few and not the many.

Introducing enterprise directly into qualifications, as City amp; Guilds has started to do, is one measure that will begin to spread the trend more widely. Another is the development of enterprise societies, promoting a learning-by-doing approach that cuts across subject boundaries. Not all the answers lie in the core curriculum, which is why I am eager for us to introduce an "enterprise passport" that gives due recognition to extracurricular activities and achievements that encourage and promote enterprise.

Since beginning work on this report, I have been greatly encouraged and emboldened by the appetite for change that exists in the education system. You could characterise my past 10 months as a period spent pushing at open doors. The enthusiasm of schools and colleges has been matched only by the enthusiasm of the business community for the provision of enterprise advisers. They will bring speakers into schools to motivate students in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects as well as enterprise.

This is just the beginning. Over the next year or two, I hope to work in partnership with the world of education to bring my proposals into being, to moderate them where necessary to fit in with circumstances and to help schools and colleges to find out more about our rapidly changing world. There is much to be done.

Lord Young of Graffham is enterprise adviser to the prime minister and author of the Enterprise For All report

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