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Young heads for business

Year 10 students enjoy taking a few risks with Company Challenge

"Who wants to take a risk in front of 180 people here today?" Most of the 180 students look worried, but there are a brave few who put their hands up. One of these, Jack, is chosen and proceeds to the front of the hall, where he is challenged to ride a unicycle. Much tittering follows as he tries several times to ride the contraption, but the challenge does have a serious point.

The Year 10 students are gathered in the hall at Sir John Colfox School in Bridport, Dorset. They are here for a Company Challenge day run by Sue Racster and Ken Gibson, from Dorset Enterprise and Skills (DES). The connection with the unicycle is explained by Ken: "Most entrepreneurs take risks and are not afraid of failing or being made to look a fool - just as Jack wasn't afraid of standing up here."

A quiz injects some humour into the proceedings as the 18 tables of students answer 20 questions about business and business people. The quiz gets the students thinking about products and businesses around them. Then the purpose of the day is outlined - to start a Christmas card enterprise.

However, as Ken explains: "It's not just about making the Christmas cards - you need a snappy design, the pricing needs to be considered, as do logos, company names, slogans and mission statements."

There's a lot to do, including producing a company newsletter and a five-minute presentation. All of this will make up the overall package to be judged later in the day. Sue says the tempo is purposefully upbeat: "We like to keep the day moving along, to ensure the students remain engaged and focused. All of the teams are arranged by the teachers beforehand, so there are a range of behaviours and abilities in each group. By explaining all the work in one go, we ensure there's plenty for everyone to do."

Each team has to produce a company name, a mission statement, a logo and a list of team responsibilities in order to receive a production pack. The pack contains cards, envelopes, sequins, glue and glitter as a starter, but there is a "shop" at the front of the hall where teams can "buy" extras.

Finances are important and the teams have a sheet for additional items, which have to be included in the costings of the cards. The level of activity is frenetic as some team members work on the pricing structure, some do artwork, while others practise their presentation.

After lunch the judge arrives. Chris Scally is the external funding and development manager for Dorset County Council. He spends 30 minutes circulating around the teams, talking about their pricing structures and looking over their written work while quizzing students about the role each person plays in the enterprise. The effect on the students is sobering.

They become serious as they answer questions and try to sell their ideas and designs.

DES is proactive in fostering links with local businesses. "It's good to have someone from the outside coming in; someone who is not a teacher. It introduces a formality and makes the experience more real for the students," says Sue.

Each enterprise has a five-minute slot to sell ideas - a daunting experience for most students. Groups range from two or three representatives to whole teams. Some speeches are beautifully rehearsed, while others are encouraged by Ken to ad lib - having spent so long perfecting the cards, they forgot about their five minutes in the spotlight. Poems and slogans are read out and one team even attempts a short rap, which has the rest of the students clapping and cheering.

Every team has a unique idea - such as profits going to Africa or 10 per cent to the World Wildlife Fund - and all have had a go at the pricing structure and have tried to identify their target market. It's a concept that not many were familiar with before the start of the day. Then it's time for judging. Chris sums up the presentations and offers feedback, before announcing that the winner is to be the rapping team called Penguin, with their slogan "cool cards at frozen prices".

"Dorset County Council is keen to promote entrepreneurship," say Chris, "as employment opportunities for young people are limited in the county, which affects the demographics. Today has given the students a taster of what's involved in running a business and hopefully may have inspired at least a couple of them to consider starting an enterprise in Dorset."

The top three teams all receive boxes of chocolates as prizes and one can only hope that as they munch these they consider the risks were worth it.

* Sue Racster and Ken Gibson can be contacted at Dorset Enterprise and Skills Tel: 01202 575500

* Dorset Enterprise and Skills runs programmes for students of all ages, as well as personal development planning days for teachers.

* Graham Farrow is the vocational co-ordinator at Sir John Colfox School Tel: 01308 422291

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