Back to School

“It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.” Sherlock Holmes, The Red Headed League.

This week I was invited by the charming Jim Hawker of Threepipe to go back to school, and to spend the morning with the Master (Helen Pike), former pupils and parents of Magdalen College Oxford. Sitting alongside Debbie Wosskow (Love Home Swap and AllBright), William Reeve (Love Film and Zoopla) and Robert Hamilton (Instant Offices), our exam question was “Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?”.

Rather than copy from the homework of these three successful entrepreneurs, I wanted to take a moment here to share my own perspective on a couple of the questions which Jim, in his invigilator’s chair, asked.

Q1. What do you think are the biggest challenges that schools face in encouraging a more entrepreneurial mindset?

The first challenge, I think, is the fear of getting things wrong. My maths teacher used to adorn my homework with kisses – which I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. At school, the name of the game is to get the right answer. We need to create environments where it’s OK to make mistakes, to make up the answer using our imagination, and to find our way to what works.

The second challenge is that we tend to design tests and exams which reward the individual. There was once a teacher who, with a big spelling test on Friday, put his class into pairs. They were told to revise together, and that on the morning of the test, a coin would be flipped, and that only one of the pair would do the test. But they would share the result. With this new method, the pupils worked carefully together, and the results went through the roof. Just imagine what school would look like if we had more scenarios which rewarded teams, classes, perhaps even whole schools for learning better together.

Related to this test conundrum is of course the challenge that too often we test for knowledge, when we need to invent more creative ways to identify all of the traits which really matter. Creativity, problem solving, team-work. How to design a system which tests for those? That is indeed a three pipe problem.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially – we educate children to be afraid of strangers. For good reason, we tell them that they are dangerous. And then we forget to tell them that they are not. So perhaps we need to design a big reveal into the school curriculum which comes clean about the secret – that strangers are not dangerous. This Stranger Safety campaign would ensure that generations of pupils don’t leave school, as they too often do at the moment, without the crucial skills of engaging with people they don’t know. These ideas, depending on your perspective, are either heresy, or blinding common sense. Visit a school today and ask yourself to what extent the sixth form have truly practiced connecting with people they don’t know, from the outside world, in a thoughtfully designed way. I’d love to see the evidence.

Q2. Business enterprise is not part of any official school curriculum and it’s up to schools themselves whether to teach about how to start a business. Do you think this needs to change?

Firstly, I think that every child in Britain should leave school with the experience of having helped to start something. It could be a business, a club, a team or a social venture. Those experiences, of bringing people and ideas together, of problem solving and using their imagination, of getting something off the ground, could be life changing. That’s why I’m such a fan of the work that Young Enterprise (home of Tenner and Fiver) does around Britain.

Secondly, much as I think it’s important to connect business people with schools (see the brilliant work of Founders 4 Schools and Speakers for Schools), I think it’s equally important that the entrepreneurial minds of students are filled with problems worth solving. That is the fuel for the enterprising brain. A well-known college told me recently of the roll-call of famous founders who had paid their Entrepreneur’s Society a visit. I encouraged them to also invite the doctors, the experts in climate change, the teachers, to explain what needs fixing in the world.

Finally, I often ask people to guess roughly how many companies are formed in Britain each month. Sometimes they guess a few hundred, or a few thousand. Most are surprised to hear that the correct number is over 50,000. That’s a full Etihad Stadium, every month. Of course not all will launch, let alone succeed, however I think it helps to begin to reframe for people just how much more popular self employment is than you might imagine. Over 15% of the labour force are self employed. That’s up from 12% in 2001. Add to that the fact that 99% of companies in Britain are NOT large, and you begin to realise just what a strange picture some students are shown. At every careers fair, and during every careers initiative, I think it’s important that alongside all of the other options, entrepreneurship and self-employment are in the mix.

So what of our overall question: Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?

My hunch is that they are born. At school.

Imagine a country in which students aren’t afraid of getting things wrong. One where they are incentivised and encouraged to work in teams. They leave school confident and capable of engaging with people they haven’t met before – on email, over the phone and in person. They understand and are moved by the problems worth solving in our world and they realise that there are many paths to success. Of course this is already the case in many schools, state and private, across the UK – and perhaps our biggest challenge is to connect the best with the rest. Imagine if this really was the rule, and not the exception. Then, perhaps, these priorities would no longer be secondary.

Imagine if we could sew these seeds at as early as primary school. Too soon? Too difficult? For me, it’s elementary.

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