How is business taught in our schools?
How are schools tackling issues of enterprise and entrepreneurship?
Are schools equipping our young people for the enterprise economy?
Have things have changed since I was at school?
Back in the 1980’s the choice of ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels was limited to academic subjects such as Mathematics, English Literature and Latin. Those who were likely to go on to University were nurtured and those likely to leave education at 18 or, heaven forbid 16, were quietly ignored. If you passed your ‘O’ levels you were expected to focus on your best three subjects at ‘A’ level, regardless of their future value to employers. Only if you struggled with ‘O’ levels but were determined to remain in school would a course in Business Studies be thought to be appropriate. Back then, careers advice focussed solely on which university to choose and maybe a little guidance in filling in an UCCA form.
But now the radio is full of phone-ins, particularly at this time of year when the national pastime seems to be writing to national newspapers to bemoan falling standards while pouring scorn on ever improving examination grades, discussing the wide variety of examination and college courses currently available.
So what now for Business Studies?
Are schools helping young people to understand the needs of businesses? Are schools giving youngsters the confidence to be able to strike out on their own and start a business for themselves? Is going into business still seen as an option solely for the less academically able?
Although my own education was in England I have lived in Scotland for the last 20 years and my own son is still part of the Scottish education system. The answers to the questions I have raised may vary depending upon the area of the UK you live in and the school a child attends, so this article will be based on my own experience of the system as it operates here. However one of the aims of the3rdi.co.uk is to create debate and to allow you to have your say. You can share your experiences via the discussion forum at www.youcubed.co.uk. Log on and tell us of your own experiences and if you are a teacher, tell us what you are doing to help prepare your kids for business.
So how are business skills delivered through the curriculum?
The qualifications in Business Management are structured as;
Standard Grade, with youngsters sitting a final examination typically in 4th year of senior school.
Higher Grade, usually youngster sit the examination at the end of their 5th year in senior school and
Advanced Higher Grade, typically taken during the 6th year of senior school for those students wanting to take the subject a little further. For completeness I should also add that Intermediate level courses are available after standard grades for students who may not reach the standard required to pass a higher grade examination in a chosen subject.
In their own document (www.sqa.org.uk) the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) states that the aim of the Business Management course at Standard Grade is “…to develop the skills and knowledge in students which allows them to access, understand and contribute to the dynamic, complex business and information environment”. While I’m not sure exactly what the statement means, as it is written in that local authority style, where words are joined together without any real regard to the transmission of meaning, there does seem to be an intention to improve understanding of what a business is and does. A more detailed examination of the course objectives indicates that students are encouraged to develop an understanding of business, to develop decision-making skills and to develop an understanding of the ways businesses operate with regard to the people working within them and the resources businesses may acquire and manage. Also, on a hugely positive note, there is a commitment to address the ethical issues involved in running an organisation.
In short the students have to decide:
What makes a business?
How do businesses develop and perform?
What resources do businesses use?
How are businesses managed?
So far so good, then, Business Management does exist as a course of study for 3rd and 4th years and my local research suggests that up to 2/3 of pupils are taking this course.
When we move to consider Higher Grade courses (and much the same holds true for the Intermediate Level Curriculum) the aims are to:
Develop an understanding of the importance of business and enterprise
Develop an understanding o the structure and key functional areas of business
Develop problem solving, decision making and analytical skills.
By the time youngster take the Advanced Higher course they are expected to build on these core skills and work in partnership with a local business.
So, the words are all positive, the aims and objectives encourage and develop an UNDERSTANDING OF THE IMPORTANCE OF BUSINESS in society. But words are one thing and actions another. And what about those pupils who don’t take a business management module?
In speaking to my local senior schools (both state and private) it would appear that business skills have been integrated into the educational package as part of the Civics or Citizenship modules that all school children are obliged to attend from the age of 4.
So how does this work in practice?
A few examples;
Year 2s each year take part in their own version of Dragons Den. They are encouraged to develop an idea that they then pitch to the Dragons – teachers – even scarier! The emphasis is on the idea not the financials and by mirroring a TV programme they can link to the celebrity status of business and make the whole experience more fun, relevant, sexy and engaging.
Years 3 and 4 are encouraged to run a business – to come up with an idea, to keep records, to source materials, in fact all of the things that a “real” business would do.
Years 5 and 6 took part in the Young Enterprise Programme, more about which later. One team designed and produced a school yearbook while the other designed and had manufactured Christmas decorations themed to the school. In talking about these projects it was clear that valuable life skills were acquired along with the business skills. For example, when the first batch of decorations arrived there was a manufacturing flaw which had to be rectified. I’m sure we can all remember that first business call we made to resolve our first business problem. To get this experience out of the way so early on can only be beneficial…..and, of course, it will prepare young people for those endless phone calls to recalcitrant banks and utility companies!!
But business studies are no longer kept within the four walls of the school. It is clear that my local schools are making use of local businesses in ways that go beyond the standard work experience model. Students taking Advanced Higher courses are required to attach themselves to a local business. In days gone by this might have meant free labour for the organisation, with the young person being taught useful business skills like how to make the tea and how to use the photocopier but I am happy to report that things have changed. The students work very closely with the business in order to gain an understanding to such an extent that they can identify an area of improvement and suggest a change. Fantastic! The student gains real insight and has real involvement and the business has to be inclusive in order for change to be implemented. Necessarily the businesses involved are small but the lessons learned are real and transferable. It wouldn’t be possible to put a young person into a huge organisation like, for example, the Royal Bank of Scotland and expect them to identify areas of improvement within 6-8 weeks……..but then again..!
Most young entrepreneurs, however, identify the biggest influence on their business choices to be enterprise schemes rather than formal academic courses. The most widely known is the Young Enterprise Programme (YEP), which is typically though not exclusively, delivered in partnership with schools. Their mission, as stated on their website, is “To inspire and equip young people to learn and succeed through enterprise”. A far clearer statement of intent, I think. It is the UK’s largest business and enterprise education charity and reaches over 350,000 4 to 25 year olds every year. They seem to be succeeding in their mission to inspire through enterprise as people who participate in a YEP are twice as likely to start a business as their peers. YEP offers a huge range of projects in support of schools from interactive lessons offered to primary age children by local business folk to graduate programmes for 18-24 year olds.
It is the company programme that has the biggest uptake in schools with 15 to 19 year olds, as at my local schools, encouraged to set up and run their own company. Here in Scotland DIMENSION, a business project from Fortrose Academy, which developed a fridge magnet and storybook to encourage healthy eating, was crowned best young enterprise company for 2008. Since six of the ten young people involved in the project are to attend the same university, they intend to start a limited company and build on their success. YE Scotland also delivers programmes outwith schools and has projects in care homes, outreach projects and young offenders institutions to enable young people to skills to improve their employment prospects.
Another resource used by my local schools is Stock Market Challenge, which is billed as an “…interactive, experiential learning tool which brings the intensity and excitement of the trading floor to the classroom.” This sounds an unlikely candidate in these times where the markets and brokers are largely discredited but I am assured, by those using the system in schools, that life skills are developed through improvements in team working and decision making.
So what about young girls into business?
It is an encouraging picture locally as at least equal numbers of boys and girls are taking formal business courses. However it is also true that fewer women than men ultimately start their own business. Girls Make Your Mark (GMYM) seeks to address this imbalance. GMYM is part of SPARK, the Women’s Enterprise Ambassador Network and here I have a problem in reporting case study evidence from Scotland as this fantastic programme is delivered by the Regional Development Agencies in England but not offered by Scottish Enterprise(SE). SE are currently reorganising and were not able to give me any information about their enterprise schemes for women but I am meeting with them at the end of September so hope to be able to tell you more next issue!
Anyway, if you are unfamiliar with GMYM then check out their website via www.makeyourmark.co.uk. As part of their ongoing commitment to develop a culture of enterprise amongst all young people the Make Your Mark Challenge will run on 16th November. So if you are in England and your local schools don’t know about this initiative, maybe you can give them a nudge.
So, there really does seem to have been a change in the last 20 odd years; enterprise seems to be integrated into the curriculum across all age groups and not only for those youngsters taking specific business courses; the importance of business to the economy is being stressed; practical business experiences are being brought into schools through schemes such as Young Enterprise and schools are working in a more meaningful way with local SME’s. The only low note that I want to raise is that without exception when explaining how practical projects and programmes were used in schools all of the teachers, without prompting from me I should add, put in the caveat……..”within the limits of ensuring that pupils achieve high examination grades.” That is to say that teachers wanted to introduce more practical projects, more interactivity but were unable to do so due to the pressure to complete the academic curriculum. I fear that while our schools are slaves to the league tables business will still largely be taught from books and as a series of facts to be absorbed, regurgitated for the examiner and promptly forgotten.