Schools bring the boardroom to the classroom

Image caption As well as learning about flowers and how to grow them, children are selling them as well

Giggling, Gabriella reflects on the success of her last business venture.

Fruity Beauty offered nail-varnishing treatments to eager customers - a captive audience who snapped up and slurped down freshly-made drinks as they waited for the polish to dry.

"We had a few problems though," Gabriella says, pointing to the corner of the room.

"Once somebody left the lid off the smoothie maker and the fruit went all over that printer. But it's all right. It still works."

It was a good business lesson, but far from her first. Now 10 years old, she has been learning about entrepreneurship since she began school.

Like about 100 schools and colleges in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, St Mary's Catholic Primary has put the concept of business and enterprise at the heart of its teaching.

And in practical terms that means that children as young as four are learning about business.

So, in classrooms adorned with laminated cartoon characters such as Freddie Finance and Tim and Tom the Teamwork Twins, reception class pupils not only learn about flowers and vegetables, but also are shown how to grow them, and then learn about the concept of enterprise as they sell some of the produce at a summer fair.


Image caption Those risk assessments are not going to do themselves

Gathered round tables in the school's library, Gabriella and 11 others are discussing a business venture for the new term - selling toast to fellow pupils each Friday morning.

"So what are the risks, what might go wrong?" asks Claire, the chairperson of this meeting of the school's enterprise council.

All manner of potential pitfalls are set out - from people being burned by toasters and not having enough plugs to running out of bread.

"And it would be easier if we didn't have to bring the toasters from home," says one boy. "So maybe if we make enough money, we can buy our own."

"And what skills are we going to use to make this a success?" Claire asks to a show of hands.

"Teamwork," chirps one. "A positive attitude," says another.

Getting engagement

These terms appear to be part of the language of these youngsters - words and concepts that feature on colourful posters on classroom walls under a heading The Big 13.

Drawn up by Rotherham Ready - the organization behind this enterprise drive - it is the 13 key skills seen as crucial to producing students who leave school and are entering the workforce.

Local businesses played a part in constructing this list which now they forms a spine for the curriculum, right up to the age of 19.

Weaving entrepreneurship into education is something praised by the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (Nesta) - an independent body promoting innovation in the UK.

"It's not something that should be taught in isolation," says Nesta's head of education Ben Arora, adding that getting businesses involved is encouraging because they are, "in some ways, the clients of the education system".

And he dismisses concerns about forcing children to grow up too fast.

"We know that young people get more engagement when what they are learning is real-world stuff. We've got to promote this engagement and if six-year-olds are using phases like risk-assessment and financial literacy, well, that's a small price to pay for such engagement."

Pie protest

Rotherham Ready project officer Catherine Brentnall agrees, saying this town, more than most others, needs to give young people the belief and confidence that one day they could run their own business or at least feel confident working for others.

Typical of many Northern towns, Rotherham suffered heavily with the collapse of coal and steel industries during the 1980s.

The boarded-up pubs and empty shops still hold some of this post-industrial gloom, and it was here that Jamie Oliver tried to start a revolution in school dinners - one which famously saw disgruntled parents handing their children pies and chips through the school fence.

There are business parks, as well as cranes signifying the growth of new apartment blocks, only a few hundred metres from the estates of Canklow and Wingfield, some of the poorest areas of the UK.

Given that most of Rotherham's 20h-CXentury economy was dependent on coal and steel - both of which for decades provided secure and well-paid jobs - there has been little tradition of enterprise and little aspiration in the town, Mrs Brentnall says.

"It used to be that your dad was a miner and your uncle was a miner and you'd become a miner. But those jobs went and in a lot of families it became, your dad was unemployed, your uncle was unemployed and you were unemployed.

"There hasn't been a lot of aspiration, if you suggested self-employment, it was like suggesting going to university. There was an attitude of, 'That isn't for people like us.' We are changing that."

Government goals

Concern that the fall-out of next month's comprehensive spending review will disproportionately hit areas like Rotherham - which have heavier dependence on public sector jobs - gives renewed vigour to the programme, Mrs Brentnall adds.

But making young people more entrepreneurial is not just a priority for this town. The government has explicitly said it believes it is key to the health of the UK's economy in the long term.

Image caption Pupils get a say in how any profits are spent - with ice creams a popular choice

Just weeks into office, business minister Mark Fisk said he wanted to make "embedding enterprise awareness and business management skills into mainstream education" as part of the strategy.

Rotherham Ready is funded from European grants and by the local council, but wants to make itself more self-sufficient - by selling on its services to other areas.

The system has already been passed on - almost franchise-like - to Hull, a city with similar socio-economic problems. Scarborough and Calderdale are also planning to adopt it.

And in Valencia - seen by many as among the most forward-looking cities in Europe, with some of the most futuristic design in the world - they, too, are adopting some the focus on enterprise learned from the considerably less sun-drenched and glamorous South Yorkshire town.

Business brain

Part of the strategy it sells to other regions are its courses, training teachers how to incorporate enterprise into their lessons, and accreditation from Warwick University.

But among the pupils, its most successful project has been Make £5 Blossom - where a local business loans pupils £5 each and - sometimes working alone, but usually pooling their resources - they set about running their own business, trying to turn a profit.

Perhaps the reason Claire leads the St Mary's meeting so confidently is that her last venture with three classmates saw them turn their £20 investment into a £500 profit by recording and selling a Christmas carols CD.

Then there are Young Entrepreneurs Clubs - after-school groups where pupils have a budget and are encouraged to fundraise.

At Sitwell Infant School in the town, these have included running a table-top sale and making films to show at cinema evenings (complete with a popcorn stall).

Profits have been used to pay for a Christmas party - complete with a clown, Punch and Judy show stilt-walker and ice cream van. But plans for the whole school to go to the cinema were scrapped after they realised that the coaches needed were out of their budget.

"If you haven't got enough money for something, then you can't do it," says William, aged 6.

'Discerning choices'

Deputy head Kate Shaw argues it is important that kids have a say in how it's used.

"In this day and age, money isn't used very much by children. When they go with their parents, people pay for things by card and children need to know that money is a commodity and they need to know the value of money.

"Where children have raised their own money and had choices about spending it, they've been much more discerning about how they used it. "

When six-year-olds are asked about their career ambitions, one, perhaps not unreasonably, declares it is "too early to say", but others express dreams of being footballers or singers - something all to familiar to Helen McLaughlin, head teacher at St Mary's.

"Enterprise for us is absolutely vital in inspiring children to have high aspirations, but by that I always mean realistic aspirations, because in the celebrity culture, children think that maybe by winning the X-Factor, that's going to be a career path. But for many children, anyway, that's not going to be an option.

"We want to inspire our children to thinking about what else is out there. We want our children to be confident, to be articulate and to be able to go to the world.

"Not everyone is going to be a Richard Branson and not everyone is going to go into business - maybe they'll work in the voluntary sector - but we want them to utilise those skills to build a better society for all of us. "

'Making links'

The region has seen an improvement in exam results - with one school in the project seeing the proportion of pupils achieving five GCSEs at grades A-C rising from 30% in 2005 to 45% in 2009 - a decent improvement, even if still below the national average.

Image caption Basic concepts such as money are taught early

But a focus on enterprise is not just for weaker students, says Mrs McLaughlin. She recalls a student who excelled at maths getting almost 100% in SATS exams, but who, when running a company, struggled to grasp the idea of ploughing the profit back into the business.

"He hadn't made the link between his very high level of maths and the actual practical application in the real world. Making connections is the way children learn and retain knowledge."


It is still a little early to say conclusively whether it is producing more entrepreneurial children than is typical in the UK, admits Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council's enterprise projects manager Jackie Frost.

But through another organisation, Rotherham Youth Enterprise, the town is trying to put in place infrastructure to help young people begin their own businesses, should they choose that path.

Over the past five years, it has supported about 240 start-up businesses. It has helped them gain access to grants and mentoring, as well as to free and then reduced rent in the town's business parks that are being opened on former industrial sites.

It also recruits entrepreneurs who have set up businesses to go back into schools to act as mentors - and sends a business coach to a local university to encourage graduates to stay in the region.

"More pupils are finishing school in Rotherham having had enterprise instilled in them as central to their education, " says Mrs Frost.

"So we're really hopeful that there'll be a lot more."

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