Entrepreneurs are the future of the UK economy, haven’t you heard? In his closing speech at the Conservative party conference back in October, David Cameron couldn’t have been much clearer.
“To all those people who strike out on their own, who sit there night after night, checking and double checking whether the numbers stack up, I say I have so much respect for you – you are national heroes,” proclaimed the Prime Minister. “Profit, wealth creation, tax cuts, enterprise, these are not dirty, elitist words – they’re not the problem, they really are the solution, because it’s not government that creates jobs, it’s businesses.”
Call it the recession if you like, but it is hard not to think there’s something more to the record number of new businesses that sprung to life in 2013. The appeal of entrepreneurialism has gripped Blighty like never before and we must capitalise on this start-up fever.
When talk turns to securing a country’s economic future, the spotlight often falls on the business leaders of tomorrow. Are there enough young people with the potential to lift the UK to new heights? With close to a million 16-24-year- olds unemployed, the figures don’t paint the prettiest of pictures. Whilst fingers have been pointed at employers, they have argued that our youngsters aren’t leaving school, college and university with the necessary skills to cut it in the world of business, let alone start and run their own enterprise.
This skills gap has not gone unnoticed by the government – but action to revamp the UK’s education system accordingly has been conspicuous by its absence. Until now, that is. A recent report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Micro Businesses – An education system fit for an entrepreneur – puts forward some positive recommendations. Among these is a call to make enterprise education a mandatory part of the curriculum for 4- to 18-year-olds and the provision of an introductory module on entrepreneurship for university students of all disciplines.
An endorsement of the report by Matthew Hancock, minister of state for skills and enterprise, is the first step. One hopes that he has gone away with the words of the group’s chair Anne Marie Morris MP ringing in his ears. “Enterprise education is crucially important if the growth agenda is to succeed,” she commented at the report’s release. “We need to create enquiring minds open to new ideas and able to spot opportunities. We also need to ensure education in entrepreneurship is available to all, not just those that make it to business school.”
Unsurprisingly, Morris has made many allies in the entrepreneurial community. There is an overriding sense that, if the UK is to become the enterprising nation it has set its stall on becoming, the education system is in need of a rethink. “Too many young people are worryingly ill-equipped with the skills they need,” says Oli Barrett, director of Cospa, the social action agency, co-founder and director of StartUp Britain and co-founder of the Tenner scheme, the enterprise challenge for secondary school students. “What we need to develop in them is an ability to go out there and deal with people they have never met before to really make things happen.”
Yet, whilst there is a sense that the education system is outdated, the ideal solution isn’t necessarily treating enterprise or entrepreneurship as a standalone subject. Weaving an entrepreneurial mindset into all parts of the curriculum seems a more prudent approach. “It’s about matching what we’re teaching young people with why we are teaching it,” says Rajeeb Dey, founder and CEO of Enternships, the platform that connects students and graduates with ‘entrepreneurial’ work placements at start-ups and SMEs. “A ‘business- focused’ curriculum doesn’t necessarily mean doing away with biology and instead forcing everyone to learn Microsoft Excel, it simply means opening up the skills they learn with how they can translate those skills to a way of life.”
Barrett adds: “Enterprise education isn’t about saying to the whole class ‘you should go and start a business’, it is about giving them a flavour of what it is like to work in a team.” Of course, there are – and forever will be – stories about entrepreneurs who dropped out of school at 14 and went on to achieve phenomenal success. However, these tales are increasingly becoming the exception rather than the rule, and if the UK’s entrepreneurial stock is to be enhanced going forward, a sea change appears crucial.
“As a country, we need to make sure that we have a very strong pipeline for the future and that we inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs,” comments Janet Coyle, managing director of Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, the firm behind Founders4Schools, the online platform that links teachers with local entrepreneurs. “By putting role models who are founders of tech companies into classrooms to talk about their entrepreneurial journey we are finding that this is significantly increasing students’ interest in studying maths and science.”
The biggest waves in entrepreneur land at the moment are undoubtedly being felt in the technology sector. Indeed, anyone reading this is probably still reeling from Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging service WhatsApp last month. Tech is big business, and will be for generations to come. Whilst this magazine may have explored the subject in depth last year, one can’t conduct a real debate about education and enterprise without discussing technology’s place in that relationship. It is worth noting that some encouraging moves are already being made on this front. The government-backed Year of Code – a not- for-profit campaign to encourage people to get coding – is generally seen as a worthy initiative, although its overriding aim, or lack thereof, has come under scrutiny.
Of greater interest is the fact that computer programming will become a mandatory part of the school curriculum from September, with children to learn how to write code from the age of five all the way through to 16. Coyle describes it as “a brilliant step in the right direction”. Others claim that, like the much- touted enterprise education, there is scope to weave it into all areas of the curriculum.
Nevertheless, the wider importance of science, technology, English and maths (STEM), can hardly be overstated. “Increasingly we are looking at a future where STEM is king,” says Michael Hayman, co-founder of Seven Hills, the campaigning PR firm. “Future wealth is going to be created as much by manufacturing and knowledge economy jobs as by anything else. The opportunities that those subjects deliver are absolutely massive and it is the front line of where this all is at the moment.”
Where, then, does higher education fit into the equation? Universities in particular have gathered a reputation as melting pots of entrepreneurial thinking and early enterprising endeavours. Many a tech giant has taken its first steps within the walls of a dormitory. Why? Well, university often affords some luxuries that primary or secondary education sometimes doesn’t.
“When you look back to those two years of A-Levels, it can be quite intense, but then when students go to university some have more freedom to be creative with ideas. There is also a mix of people from different parts of the world,” comments Coyle. “This diversity encourages innovation and creativity. Students have access to incredible people, incredible mentors and are soon able to form a team around a business idea.”
An introductory module on entrepreneurship could be a useful addition to the mix. However, it seems that following the examples of Cambridge and Oxford, where entrepreneurialism is part of the DNA, will also deliver the rewards being sought by government and the country as a whole. “Every department of the university has an opportunity to identify, support and enable change-makers,” says Barrett. “Across the board, I don’t think entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking should be restricted to the business school.”
That’s not to say that business schools don’t have a part to play. From Cass to Henley, these centres of enterprise are still as important to the country’s future as ever. However, even within these institutions, change is afoot.
“Business schools have traditionally been the home of learning about big business and the way that big business does things,” says Hayman. “But of course, the changes in the market are such that more students are more interested in enterprise and entrepreneurship. That is an interesting shift. A lot of the teaching has been about ‘how do I become an entrepreneur?’ whereas a lot of people are now looking at this in more academic terms such as ‘what creates the entrepreneurial condition?’”
The inflated cost of attending university or business school nevertheless presents a significant barrier, so much so that an over-reliance on them to produce the next generation of entrepreneurs would be perhaps misguided. Given the digital age that we now live in, affordable and time-efficient ways of learning are rising in popularity. A failure to recognise this would be an untimely oversight, not least because it serves to provide a link that is so desperately needed between academic thinking and the corporate world.
“There is certainly a gap in that too many business schools aren’t reaching a broad enough audience,” says Peter Chadwick, CEO of Ideas for Leaders, a new service from IEDP, the executive learning body, that gives companies access to research from the world’s top 50 business schools. “To an extent through massive online courses, but also through the digital developments that are happening in executive education, there is a big opportunity now to actually do this.”
With a new culture of entrepreneurialism engulfing the UK, it is clear that education is yet to catch up. But the necessary steps are being taken, and the more who join the revolution, the better. Barrett concludes: “I am inspired by any teacher who understands that by opening up their classrooms to enable the outside world to come in, they are doing their students a massive favour by showing that business isn’t something to be feared.”
A great leap forward
For Fintan Donohue, chief executive of the Gazelle Colleges Group, embracing entrepreneurship at all levels of education is critical if the UK is to continue to compete on the global stage. “Entrepreneurship is undoubtedly something that needs to be practiced and experienced in order to be learnt,” he says. “We have got to create a curriculum and opportunity that allows many more students and staff to work with entrepreneurs, but more importantly create the circumstances in colleges and in schools that allow young people and adults to do what entrepreneurs do, which is to test out ideas, implement them, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and to try to do it in a safe learning environment.”
It is this line of thinking that inspired Donohue in January 2012 to team up with the principals of four other further education (FE) colleges and create Gazelle, which offers an alternative to mainstream college education. “We decided to pool some of our resources and start to look at how, by engaging with entrepreneurs and by building new types of colleges that put commercial learning and experience much more at the core of the student experience, we could perhaps provide something better for some of our students.”
Gazelle now has 22 colleges under its belt, all backed by a select group of entrepreneurs and business leaders including Peter Jones, Doug Richard and Emma Jones. The focus is on providing students with the sort of experiences they will encounter as either a business owner or employee. Community and social enterprise are also firmly engrained in the Gazelle psyche, with joint ventures having been formed with initiatives such as the Pants to Poverty Pi Foundation.
Donohue concludes: “Education has no alternative, if it is serve its community properly, but to create people who are more open to creating businesses, who are more confident about coping with uncertainty, who actually have a different experience than simply a diet of teaching.”
The stars of tomorrow
Young Enterprise has been working tirelessly to carve out opportunities for the UK’s under- 25s for over 50 years. Its mission statement resonates as strongly today as it would have done in 1963: ‘to inspire and equip young people to learn and succeed through enterprise.’ Among those calling for an education system geared towards the realities of business and employment, it is undoubtedly the voice of Young Enterprise that can be heard above the din. “I always find it amazing that when the government tries to widen the curriculum, the likes of sport, drama and debating seem to get there,” says Michael Mercieca, CEO of Young Enterprise. “It is only of late there has been movement towards entrepreneurs speaking in schools.”
The charity has struck gold with a pair of schemes that throw the country’s youth into the throes of invention and entrepreneurship. The brainchild of StartUp Britain co-founder Oli Barrett, Tenner has won support from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and an array of established entrepreneurs. It has inspired secondary school pupils across the UK with its simple premise of ‘take £10, create a business and make a profit’. And to the delight of Mercieca and the scheme’s many advocates, the Prime Minister’s enterprise advisor, Lord Young, BIS and Virgin Money have joined Young Enterprise to launch Fiver, a £5 challenge designed purely for primary school students.
“It is all about giving young people confidence and belief in themselves,” says Mercieca. “I think we need to invest in the whole pipeline which is why we are very pleased that Lord Young and BIS have launched Fiver with us, because that demonstrates they understand it must start at primary level.”