Gordon Brown wants schools to be more entrepreneurial. But even the Chancellor of the Exchequer must be astonished at how far Denefield school has taken the idea. In the past three years this Reading technology college has set up a limited company, founded five businesses, given students paid directorships, and is now confidently predicting a multi-million-pound future.
"I used to joke about making a million," says Chris Severino, 18, a student director of one business. "Now it doesn't seem so stupid."
But Denefield school is no glittering business academy; it's an unheralded 11-18 school on the outskirts of town, with an intake creamed off by local grammar schools and average academic results. Its journey into the exciting, can-do world of business began by chance, five years ago, when it successfully bid to host the launch of Gordon Brown's campaign to push entrepreneurship in schools. "Afterwards they sent us a cheque for pound;500, which was very nice, and we bought some benches and thought no more about it," says the school's headteacher, Eric Joint.
But then Enterprise Insight, the company running the campaign, launched a pilot entrepreneur-in-residence scheme for schools and asked Denefield if it would like to sign up. It arranged for Mark Adams, a local venture capitalist with a background in technology, to visit the school one day a week. One year on, a brainstorming day with teachers and governors produced hundreds of money-making ideas. "Mark said, 'Some will take off, and some will fail, and you won't know which ones will be which until it happens.'
But that was all right. I'm a big risk-taker," says Mr Joint. One idea that quickly bombed was for a school-based driving school.
Mark Adams says: "When I first went into the school I had a session with two kids from each year group, and they oozed enterprise, which I define as taking risks to make things happen. I knew I didn't want to teach enterprise. That's like sitting in a classroom trying to teach pole vaulting. You've got to be doing it. It's got to be hands on."
Even so, he says, it took another year and a half of knocking ideas about to make things happen. But in June 2003, Denefield Enterprises Limited was born and Peter Doyle, an e-commerce expert who had worked for Hamleys, Waitrose and Toys 'R' Us, came on board. He answered an advertisement for a sales and marketing manager in the local paper, and it turned out to be for the school where he had been head boy in the 1980s. "I fell in love with the idea immediately," he says. "Corporate life is fun, but something was missing. I wanted to do something more community-based. My goal now is to make a million for my old school."
He was given a laptop, a phone, a desk in an old caretaker's bungalow to one side of the school car park, and a salary paid for by the Kandos Foundation (now the InSchool Foundation), a charity set up by Mark Adams to support enterprise in schools. After a short, unprofitable, period of traditional fundraising activities such as holding fetes and hiring out school premises for functions, Mr Doyle and the others figured out that the unique selling point of Denefield Enterprises Limited was the fact that it was based in a school. "People would trust us. They would know we weren't out just to make a fast buck. The second year was the big change year for us," he says. Thus, in July 2004, five subsidiary businesses were launched, with loans guaranteed by the InSchool Foundation First up was InSchool Shop. A tiny retail space was created to sell school uniform, games kit, bags, greeting cards, jewellery and anything else that students and staff wanted; it can even order in an electric guitar. The shop now has an online ordering service, and Denefield plans to set up a chain of shops in schools across the country. InSchool will provide stock and staff, and manage the shops, but split the profits 50-50 with the host school. They are hopeful of clinching their first deal within the next few weeks.
Other ideas followed. The one that looks likeliest to hit the jackpot is School Trip, which offers specialist software to guide teachers through all aspects of assessing and planning a trip, as well as a transport and venue booking service. Peter Doyle says a major investor is interested in backing the venture to the tune of pound;1 million. "We are looking to be the Google of school trips," he says.
All the businesses are strictly ethical, with Eric Joint, as chairman of the holding company, having the final say on decisions. The media company, for example, won't deal with junk food manufacturers, but will help place healthy drinks in schools. "People say, 'Ooh, advertising and schools',"
says Layla Rea, its managing director, "but it happens anyway, and we would rather it was school-owned and school-controlled."
The companies are run by directors recruited from outside the school who receive a salary (the music promotions arm is the only company yet to generate any income. Its managing director, Sarah Dando, is paid by the InSchool Foundation). Each company also has a couple of student "directors"
-Year 12 students who work for an hour and a quarter a week, paid at Pounds 8.50 an hour. "They can't legally be directors because they are under 18, but we expect them to behave like directors," says Peter Doyle.
"Their time is more about thinking than doing, and they have to come to board meetings and go through everything relating to that company. It's a way of learning what it means to run a company, only in a safe environment."
Imogen Macmillan, 16, who is taking five A-levels and hoping to go to Oxford, is a director and business development manager of School Trip. At first she was hesitant. "I didn't think I could do it. The job titles seemed all very high up. I didn't have any experience, and I wasn't doing business studies. But I had an interview and I was asked to come up with five things that I thought would be an asset to the company and which would help myself."
She told them she'd like to help lower the cost of trips because many families struggle to raise the money. Recently she has been studying the Government's new school trips manifesto looking for business opportunities.
"I thought business was all men in suits going to board meetings and being involved in power struggles. Now I know it's really interesting."
Chris Dinsey, 17, left school at the end of Year 12 and will begin an engineering apprenticeship with Virgin Atlantic in September. In the meantime he is working as business development manager for InSchool Commerce, on a salary of around pound;10,000 a year, revamping the school's intranet and learning to think like a businessman. "I never used to consider my time as a cost," he says. "Now I look at things more sensibly." InSchool Commerce has already built websites for clients such as a local parish council, and is looking to host and support networks for other schools. Chris Severino, 18, a fellow director, plans to pay his way through university by carrying on working for the company.
Students are also involved with the shop. Tracy Crisp, the shop manager who has previously worked for Tie Rack, says: "They get good money, but they have to come up with the goods, and they have to look at things in a real business environment."
In fact learning is central to all that goes on. Students use their experience as the basis for business studies coursework, and company managers come in to help with classes. Students learn about profit margins, writing a business plan, and how to handle business relationships. The two students building the school's intranet, for example, are working out how to train their teachers to use it. "We had to make it really simple.
Teachers can't cope with two different systems. They're completely baffled," says Chris Dinsey.
"Children's enterprise spirit is absolutely there," says Mark Adams.
"Babies and toddlers will take risks. They'll fall over when they're learning to walk and stand up again. The question is, when does that spirit start to get lost?" Everyone at Denefield is alert to ideas and possibilities. "We all have this latent entrepreneurial talent," says Peter Doyle, who now runs the InSchool Foundation. "It's just a question of whether it's brought out or not."
Further information at www.inschool.com or contact Peter Doyle: email@example.com
THE DENEFIELD PORTFOLIO
This sets up shops in secondary schools and on the web selling uniform, stationery, books, games and accessories. Students help to run them. The manager of the Denefield shop, Tracy Crisp, says it saves time for pupils, teachers and parents, and that the students feel it's their shop, where they are taken seriously as customers. "They love to help, and if they have questions about retailing, we answer them."
A music promotions company that plans to be an interface between the music industry and school students. A website will offer instruments, courses, lessons, voice training, chat forums, masterclasses and listings. "Music teachers are often frustrated not to be able to help pupils further, and this will support them," says Sarah Dando, managing director. "We also want to show students there are more jobs in the industry than being a pop star."
An advertising and marketing company bringing companies and schools together. It works within ethical guidelines, and is currently talking to "a major international sports brand" and to the Olympic organisers about promotions. "I don't see any problem with this sort of thing being owned and controlled by schools," says Joe Butler, sales director. "Why shouldn't schools make money when brands are fighting to get to the 11 to 18 market?"
A web technology company that works with schools, community groups and small businesses. It has just revamped Denefield's intranet and plans to offer hosting and support to other schools. "Everything we've been doing for the school is about making learning better," says business manager Chris Dinsey. "You're not taught how to do this in school. We've had to learn it at home, from books. We don't go out. We live with the computer."
Uses specially designed software to walk teachers through planning and running a school trip. It also offers online booking of transport and venues. Attracting interest from a major investor, it could save schools up to 36 hours of teacher time a term, says Peter Doyle.