Sunday, 29 December 2013

Three Reasons why Schools and Parents are not nurturing a generation of Entrepreneurs:

A journalist contacted me last week to ask if I thought that schools should teach enterprise and entrepreneurship: How important is it? Is it a good idea? Is it realistic for teachers to try to teach it? and, if so, how far should we go?  Is there a danger that it could overshadow traditional subjects? The questions were framed in a way that suggested that, whilst attending various carol services and nativity plays, I had missed a pronouncement from the Secretary of State that 'Enterprise and Entrepreneurship' was to be the next candidate for inclusion in the Gove/National Curriculum. The questions posed struck a chord. They open up the important debate about how both school and home are bringing up this generation, and how this will impact on their ability to cope in the world of work . . . .

Qualities of the Entrepreneur
Three of the most important qualities of enterprise and entrepreneurship are arguably:
  1. the ability to take risks; 
  2. the ability to pick yourself up when things go wrong; and
  3. the ability to make connections and approach a problem in a novel way.
Unfortunately, today these are alien concepts. Here are three reasons why I believe that the implicit messages that parents and schools are sending to young people foster quite the opposite values.

"Have you got a risk assessment for that?"
Think of your fondest childhood memory - I wager it was outside, and that was away from the supervision of adults. Chances are that your mother sent you out to play saying "Don't come back till tea time." Mine did - most did. Looking back on my childhood, it's amazing that I'm alive. We went off to play in the way that boys did - we climbed trees, we broke into condemned buildings that had collapsing floors, I explored all the loft spaces of the house, went on all-day bike rides, and so on. Undoubtedly it was dangerous - but we learned to take and manage risks. Children don't do that anymore. Their idea of danger is served up by Alton Towers:  it's scary, but fundamentally it's safe - you think that your going to Oblivion, but really you know that you'll get to queue up for the next ride.
The same goes for travel - so few pupils walk or even ride a bike to school. Most are chauffeured by parents everywhere - even to be dropped off to catch the School bus.  Few ever use public transport and most can't even read a railway or bus timetable, let alone plan a long distance journey. In contrast, I walked three-quarters of a mile to catch a train to school each morning (sometimes carrying a 'cello!) When I was 13 I was put on a train at Chelmsford and expected to get myself  to Valenciennes in north west France by train and ferry (operating for a part in my schoolboy French) to stay with my pen-friend. Unthinkable today - and all the more so when one thinks that we grew up in a world without mobile phones. It was a different world - but I'm not convinced that it was any more dangerous.
There is little doubt that we have become overprotective of our children, that they gain independence later (helicopter parents at University!) and that they are far less skilled at managing risk. If this is the case, how can we really expect this generation of young people to show enterprise and take the risks needed by entrepreneurs if on a daily basis they remain wrapped up in cotton wool?

"Practically Perfect in Every Way"
There is a growing culture in independent schools and amongst fee-paying parents that a B or a C grade is a failure. There are two factors driving this. First, A-level grade inflation means that top universities find it increasingly difficult to discriminate between candidates. In a world where significant numbers of pupils have A* and A grades - anything less and your chances of getting into a top 10 university goes out of the window. Secondly, School league tables (and therefore a schools' academic standings) are determined by the percentage of A*+A. 
The consequence of this is that young people are expected to be "practically perfect in every way" - or at least to have a perfect academic record. There is no doubt that young people are under much greater pressure to perform at a high level than we were at school:  last summer the vast majority of Berkhamsted Sixth held and made university offers in excess of ABB  - pressure reserved only for the most prestigious courses in the 1980s.
Perhaps the most bizarre unintended consequences of the "A-grade = Pass culture" is that children are no longer allowed to fail. Parents are increasingly vocal as soon as a grade drops below an A. Let me illustrate:
When an essay set early in the AS course is marked at a B or C grade, it is not uncommon for a parent to contact the school to ask why their child has dropped a grade. ["It has been very upsetting for her."]  It does not take long before the accusation that "The teacher clearly hasn't taught them properly!" is levelled. When it is explained to the parent that few experienced teachers would expect a pupil in their first weeks of the Lower Sixth to be writing at A grade standard [because it takes time to develop a mature essay writing style and that the transition from GCSE to A-level is not an easy one] a typical parental repost is along the lines of  "Well, your expectations should be higher, Mr Steed" or "Why set a task when they can't get an A grade?"
Something has been lost here. Getting a B or a C grade has always been a normal part of the learning process. B or a C grades should indicate that a pupil has reached a certain standard, but that there is more work to do. Yet in our "practically perfect" culture, any deviation from an A grade is seen as an aberration that in some way damages the young person's self esteem. 
Learning to cope with failure and disappointment is an important part of life and schools have a fundamental part to play in this. How a young person reacts to getting a B or a C grade is important: "What do I need to do to get an A grade?" "Where did I go wrong?" "What does an A grade essay look like?"  There the  is a real danger that we are creating a generation of young people who lack the basic resilience that is fundamental to success in the world of work - let alone embarking on a career as an entrepreneur.

"We are breading a generation of accountants, not entrepreneurs." 
There was a time when I started teaching when we all knew what an A grade essay looked like - it was sometimes difficult to put your finger on why, but we all knew one when we saw one. We knew for the same reasons that Oxbridge dons 'know' what a First looks like (or indeed an Beta+? for that matter) - because it had been passed down through the generations with professional rigour and pride. The old system could accommodate those with flair, it could accommodate the maverick. That was all part of the fun. Teachers would encourage the bright pupil to take a different angle or to make the quirky connection, knowing that she would be rewarded for doing so. Today flair is an alien concept to examiners: the mark schemes are so rigid that we only reward the careful. The consequence is that the bright pupil has the maverick beaten out of him. Flair has become a vice. Making quirky connections a menace. We have an A-level system that is breading a generation of accountants: they are reliable, they are careful, they don't make mistakes and they get the job done - they are trained to think in the same way. Consequently most bright pupils don't have an entrepreneurial bone in their body.

Final Thoughts
I'm sure that it would be very good for the country if more young people were to go out into the world to become Entrepreneurs. However, I don't think that 'enterprise and entrepreneurship' can be taught in a classroom - indeed the key skills are best taught outside of the classroom.
  1. Risk:  "We expose young people to risk in controlled situations" (Duncan Hardy, Director of Outdoor Education at Berkhamsted). Young people need to learn to take and manage risk. Some of the most important things that we do at school are the most dangerous: the rock climbing club, the CCF survival weekends, Duke of Edinburgh Expeditions and so on - these activities teach young people a whole range of important skills and give them "character-forming" experiences that will shape them for life. They should be a fundamental part of every child's education.
  2. Failure is a great teacher:  "Life isn't fair - get used to it."  Young people need to learn how to cope with disappointment and failure. Resilience is a vital life skill that can only be learned in the school of hard knocks. We need to let young people fail, if they are to succeed.
  3. In Praise of the B grade:  We all need to see ourselves as "work-in-progress" - we are never "the finished article": to think of ourselves as A* is hubris.
  4. Encourage the maverick:  We need people who can see problems from different angles. We need to value people who can make connections. We need to encourage intellectual risk-taking.  In terms of the examination system, this will never be possible if we continue on the path to tick-box examining.

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