Five tips for the government’s new entrepreneurship tsar

I’m coming to blogging fashionably late, like when I bought a trilby hat four years after they’d had a moment. But I was inspired to write after last week’s government announcement of a new review into how to turn Britain into ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. This one is led by Michelle Mone, the lingerie entrepreneur, who is qualified by her achievements in rising up from her East End of Glasgow roots and building a business empire. As anyone doing it will tell you, running a business may be challenging and adventurous but it’s not easy, so a big trilby tip to Michelle for managing to create an empire. It’s not within the experience of most people. Whether her outlier perspective is a hindrance or a help on the path to wisdom is yet to be seen. I’d be fascinated if Lisa McKenzie, a researcher living in the sort of community Michelle left behind, was appointed as an associate reviewer and they could compare and contrast their findings.

Michelle’s review is focussed on barriers to entrepreneurship in deprived communities, and I’ll eat my trilby if the debate doesn’t eventually come round to education, and more specifically, how it could be adapted, or include experiences that could help young people be more entrepreneurial.

This happened with the APPG group on Micro Business, which went on to publish An Education System Fit for an Entrepreneur, and it happened with Lord Young’s small business review which published Enterprise for All, an exploration of the relevance of enterprise in education.

I was involved in the review that led to Enterprise for All, and think that Distilled Ginger Wisdom captured it neatly when he said that the recommendations and final document, though practical, didn’t reflect the nuanced solutions reviewers said would make a difference. So I could understand why #ented colleagues might roll their eyes at this latest announcement. The optimist in me hopes things will be different.

Michelle said in her BBC interview that she wants to learn about the barriers to entrepreneurship and what changes are needed, so I’ve got five tips to inform her thinking when the debate gets round to entrepreneurial learning in education.

  1. Brush up on the basics: Have a read of this background paper by Swedish researcher Martin Lackéus for a grounding in the why, what, when and how of entrepreneurial learning. His research helps conceptualise why entrepreneurial learning is an effective way of developing academic mind-sets and non-cognitive skills. But design is everything, students need to interact with the outside world, deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and have a team working experience if they are to develop entrepreneurial competencies.
  2. Recognise that mind-set gets fixed early. People’s ambitions, mind-set and imagination about what the future can hold for them can get fixed at a young age. The research that originally informed my work, Learning to Succeed, illustrated that some young people have made their minds up about the future when they’re still in primary school. That means, in terms of entrepreneurial learning in education, a few collapsed timetable days at secondary school and an annual Global Entrepreneurship Week is too little, too late.
  3. Don’t assume that an enterprise competition is the answer for young people from deprived backgrounds. I would argue that too many young people’s experiences in entrepreneurial learning are through ‘winners and losers’ type activity, which could have the unintended consequences of putting them off further exploration or involvement. Recent research explores the potential adverse impact for some students of the ubiquitous competitive, high stakes, win-or-lose business contest. Heilbrunn and Almor (2014), found that the design of entrepreneurial learning can reproduce social inequalities, rather than unlock every young person’s entrepreneurial spirit. The researchers investigated the impact of taking part in a competitive business contest and found that for middle and higher socio-economic students there was a very positive impact. However, for lower socio-economic students (the ones that Michelle is interested in), their self-efficacy and the desire and feasibility to be an entrepreneur went in the wrong direction. Post analysis interviews showed a complex mix of interacting factors, from less parental support, to less time spent on task, and interestingly the feeling at regional meetings and competitions of being ‘under privileged, backward and less capable.’
  4. Take a critical look at the system, not just the people. Have a read of Van Galan and Stahl and recognise what structural barriers young people face, as well as individual ones. Young people growing up in deprived communities aren’t protected in the same way that middle class children are. They don’t have the same access to knowledge, the support building confidence and skills, and the role models and networks that show them the diverse ways people make employment in a global economy. Recommendations that don’t propose some sort of entitlement to this, which kicks in as soon as young people start school, won’t have the impact Michelle seems enthusiastic about making.
  5. Move the conversation on from schools ‘doing’ entrepreneurship activities to entrepreneurial teaching methods impacting on motivation, learning and achievement. There are so many business and enterprise activities out there that even if an educator lived five lifetimes they still wouldn’t be able to take part in every competition, develop every challenge, link with every ambassador or download every lesson plan. In terms of reach though it’s like this: it’s the converted who are being preached to. Because for most schools, entrepreneurship is just a bit-part on their agenda, if it’s there at all. The game in town in schools is improving pupil achievement through better quality teaching and learning, so unless you can bring the movement together around that, then entrepreneurial learning will always be a fringe activity in education. Head Teachers involved in developing entrepreneurial learning as a vehicle for school improvement praise the energising effect on school culture and expectations, the innovation in curricula and pedagogy and the motivation of teachers and pupils. Put the focus on that and Michelle, you might just start a conversation more schools want to have.