'Should schools be fostering entrepreneurial thinking - and aren’t they doing this anyway?'

Posted on: 12 Apr 2019
Posted by: Helen Pike

Helen Pike, master at Magdalen College School, argues the ability to assess risk and reward and to make good decisions are essential to what it means to be a successful human being.

It’s easy to be cynical about entrepreneurialism in schools, to put it in the ‘silo’ alongside other trendy terms which make headlines: ‘future preparedness’, ‘twenty-first century skills,’ and my least favourite: ‘We must prepare young people for jobs that haven’t been invented yet!’

This cynicism becomes even more tempting when entrepreneurialism can appear like another passing bandwagon for politicians to hitch themselves onto as a break from Brexit. (And who could blame them for that?) But recently I was glad to see Damian Hinds welcoming a way of looking at the curriculum which has been part of life at Magdalen College School and many other schools for some time now: how do we foster entrepreneurial thinking in our students?

And I was even more cheery because of who was advising him: the dynamic Oli Barrett, who describes himself as a serial founder and connector, and who brought ‘Tenner’ and ‘Fiver’ to over a quarter of a million pupils. (He also gave an inspirational talk at an MCS networking breakfast recently, which dealt with the question of whether or not entrepreneurs are born or made. As a teacher, I was glad that we focused on the effort which goes into creating entrepreneurial confidence in our students!)

Of course, all this begs a question: should schools be fostering entrepreneurial thinking - and aren’t they doing this anyway? After all, don’t we have Business Studies? But what we’re talking about here is much more than double-entry accounting for the twenty-first century. It’s not even necessarily about setting up a company. Instead, it is a curriculum which has as one of its elements entrepreneurial habits of mind, which include teamwork, good communication skills, the ability to solve problems creatively, and above all good decision-making.

What employers have been telling us consistently for the past decade is that yes, technical skills are important, but what really makes for success in the workplace are these core attributes. There might be exceptions to this, perhaps if you are a brilliant coder who works from home, but can anyone really think of a profession which requires no networking, communication and team-building skills at all? And would you wish that life on your students?

As Oli Barrett puts it, we want young people to leave school having started something. It might be an app, or it might be a volunteer group, club, or society. It might be something that gains national attention, or it might flop after a week in Third Form. It doesn’t matter: The point is to have a go. The point is to be a pioneer, a carver of niches, a connector of ideas and above all of people.

Not all of this is obvious if students watch the ‘The Apprentice’ or ‘Dragon’s Den.’ They could be forgiven for thinking that rudeness and remorseless self-promotion plus a good dose of back-stabbing are the essential ingredients of business success. There is a danger that these TV shows will do for entrepreneurs what Punch-and-Judy debates in Parliament does for politics: they will put off the kind of people who we actually want and need to be the entrepreneurs of the future.

The ball-breaking image of entrepreneurs is particularly ironic when we consider the number of women who set up their own businesses every year, often so that they can combine more flexible working with motherhood. (Since the economic downturn in 2008, 58% of the newly-self-employed have been female, an unprecedented growth and change.) On example of the successful female entrepreneur is the spirited Saira Khan, runner-up on the Apprentice, who has recently launched a range of organic beauty products. She forms part of a panel of entrepreneurs who support MCS pupils who want to set up their own businesses, and who teach pupils from Years 9-12 entrepreneurial habits of mind. Encouraging creative entrepreneurial projects has also proved a great opportunity for an independent-state school partnership among a group of aspiring entrepreneurs in Years 9-11.

All this can be enough to make teachers shift uneasily behind their desks and ask the awkward question. ‘Yes, but does any of this make a difference?’ As with just about everything, it depends on how we measure it. There might be qualifications in Business Studies, but beyond that our assessment-driven education system is in danger of labelling ‘soft’ anything it can’t give a UMS. The real value of entrepreneurial thinking is that it’s far more than whether it can be graded—or even how much money you make. In fact, thinking entrepreneurially isn’t actually about whether or not you set up your own business at all. (Let’s face it, successful Heads have to think entrepreneurially if the sector is to survive and flourish.)

The ability to assess risk and reward and to make good decisions aren’t just CV attributes—they are essential to what it means to be a successful human being. And you don’t have to set up your own business to aspire to that.

About Helen Pike

Helen Pike is master at Magdalen College School in Oxford.