Wealth creation-that's the business for us

Are teachers biased against the commercial ethic? They will be swimming against the tide if Blue Skies, a new government project, succeeds in selling the message that making money is a good thing. Stephen Hoare reports.

Business dynamics, the mentoring and business education charity, has found a novel way of putting the private enterprise message across to school pupils. In conjunction with Shell Livewire, the firm is running regional nightclub-style events, Attended by up to 500 young people and featuring the rock band Groove Armada with supporting acts, these are all presentations by young entrepreneurs.

Known as Blue Skies, the project helps pupils to develop business skills and promote the Government's strategy for boosting the number of business start-ups among young people. At the launch of the UK roadshows, the small firms minister Nigel Griffiths said: "I want to encourage local lads (and lasses) made good to go into classrooms to inspire pupils to become entrepreneurs."

Blue Skies has the personal backing of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who has channelled money into the project through the Department of Trade and Industry's small business service and the Government's enterprise insight campaign.

A businessdynamics survey found that 35 per cent of pupils would consider setting up their own firms in the future. While this finding may be based on a self-selecting group who have had some form of business mentoring, it nevertheless shows a growing sympathy for young enterprise.

But credible role models are in short supply. The likes of Richard Branson or Anita Roddick are too distant from children's experiences. But when Jon Wright spoke at a recent Blue Skies event about how he set up his company Innocent Drinks with a pound;500 investment, a pile of fruit and a juicer, the message came across loud and clear.

David Millar, chief executive at businesssdynamics, says: "He and a friend started selling smoothie drinks at a pop festival and tested the market with two big dustbins for the empty bottles with placards that read 'Should I give up my day job - yes or no?'

"The Yes bin was full!"

Mr Wright, an outspoken advocate for fun and free enterprise, criticises a head-in-the-sand attitude from schools.

"The problem was the careers guidance we were given," he says. "It was all about becoming an accountant, a lawyer or a doctor. Setting up your own business didn't feature at all."

Sir Paul Judge, chairman of businessdynamics, agrees. "The problem starts with pupils' attitude to business," he says. "Other than the local shopkeeper, they don't have role models around them. And sadly, teachers don't have much sympathy with the wealth-creation business."

To fill this knowledge gap and to back up its Blue Skies campaign, businessdynamics has sent business mentors and seminar leaders into schools to contribute to business studies and personal, social and health education courses.

Through its membership, which includes the UK's largest companies and some of its brightest new stars, businessdynamics can call on the services of some 8,000 managers and business people trained to run sessions on marketing, accounts and people management. These seminar leaders often have links with the schools they visit - they may be parents or work for local companies. One such contributor is Anita Patel who runs a successful nationwide promotions company in Leicester, also works a mentor.. "I start by shaking pupils' hands," she says. "In business, a firm handshake and looking someone in the eye is the basis of any deal. Then I set pupils a challenge - to use their imagination to come up with an innovative product. I divide them into teams: an advertising team, a public relations agency, and a marketing department to put together a budget, sales material and a promotion campaign."

John May, the director of education for Business in the Community, endorses the hands-on approach.

"We would say that the most successful mentoring programmes involving business people are those which have a clear agenda," he says.

As Blue Skies shows, business mentoring has moved from the vague corporate do-gooding of a decade ago to a focused corporate social responsibility agenda.

Mentors fall into two types: the role model who inspires and the sympathetic ear that listens. Seminar leaders who "teach" their skills through organising business activities and the visitor who sits down for a one-to-one sessions with pupils are of a piece.

But they are not counsellors - if mentors have any reason to suspect a child is being abused at home, they are advised to refer the case to the appropriate agency.

The role of business mentor in a school is also completely different from the one-to-one advice provided by the Connexions service which counsels young people. Its efforts are aimed at those in the greatest need. BITC's John May singles out objective detachment as the most useful quality for business mentors. "The reason they can play such a vital role is that they are not teachers, youth workers or parents."

For mentors, the skill set is generously broad brush. Tamara Mooney, events and marketing co-ordinator for the National Mentoring Network, explains:

"We look at anybody over the age of 18 who has useful life experience and good listening skills."

John May of Business in the Community says that the setting has become more of an issue. "There's certainly a change in where mentoring activities take place and an increased awareness of child protection issues. Meeting children in the local cafe has all been tied down. Mentors are either going into school or are meeting mentees in the workplace."

Kate Cavelle manager of Deutschebank's citizenship department runs an active mentoring scheme and offers training for seminar leaders. "Our advice is to start with something that will keep children's attention. Make them listen and want to get involved." Ms Cavelle plays on pupils' natural curiosity about the world of business. "By Year 11, children are thinking about the courses and options they are going to study and how this will affect their future chances. What kids are interested in is who our business people are, where they've come from and how they got where they are today?"

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