Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Entrepreneurship: a challenge for schools?

Entrepreneurship: a challenge for schools?

I was asked recently: are entrepreneurs born, or can the skills be taught? It’s a question worth debating, because government tends to get anxious from time to time about the need for schools to teach entrepreneurship.

Frankly, I’m sceptical about trying to teach any such thing: but we can surely ensure that within the broad education we offer we inculcate the skills and qualities necessary to a successful entrepreneur. 

The old argument about nature versus nurture seems to be stronger, in the modern world at least, when people talk about entrepreneurism than about any other topic.  

As I said above, I’m pretty sure that we cannot aim specifically to teach entrepreneurism in schools. 

So are they born? Certainly some are. Sir Richard Branson is often the best example given. He left school at the age of 16: he’s very dyslexic (an interesting fact in itself) and school wasn’t doing much for him (we might hope that we do better with all dyslexics nowadays, let alone exceptionally gifted and wacky ones like Branson). But with dyslexia, curiously, often comes a very creative streak – which Branson undoubtedly has in spades.

One likeable thing about Richard Branson is that he doesn’t preach about how to be an entrepreneur. There isn’t a science in his view. There isn’t a secret formula, nor a procedure that can be taught. Indeed, his advice to would be entrepreneurs is “just get on with it”.   

That’s the best advice for any entrepreneur. Try things. Don’t worry if you fail: learn, move on, and try again.

And, of course, schools can teach that skill. At the RGS we very consciously try to develop resilience in our students: so they do learn from failure, rather than give up, and see a setback as something to learn from. And we mustn’t be afraid to let them fail (a message somewhat counter to the current zeitgeist). 

At their best, all schools also encourage the kind of experimentation and “having a go” that is the stuff of successful entrepreneurship: again, very much a feature at the RGS. Inspired and inspiring maths teaching, for example, isn’t merely just getting the right answer to a sum: it’s about understanding why, and finding a creative solution if an obvious, simple one isn’t immediately apparent.

At the same time, another entrepreneurial catchphrase is KISS: “keep it simple, stupid”. The best ideas, the ones that work most effectively (and cheaply) are the simple ones.

Am I claiming something for schools in general (and the RGS in particular) that isn’t really happening? I don’t think so. We do indeed try to promote:

  • Resilience
  • Determination
  • Readiness to learn from failure
  • Creative and original thinking.

But is there a definable thing called entrepreneurship that we can teach?

No. Entrepreneurs are the people who can bring together those four elements I’ve listed above. Those people who can harness those elements and bring them into play at once are the successful entrepreneurs. For various reasons not entirely creditable to our history of education, many of the great entrepreneurs (like Branson) failed at school and yet went on to enormous success. More accurately, we should say that schools failed them.

But entrepreneurs tend to be very bright, creative and original people. We must refuse to allow education (despite the non-stop exam and testing pressures) from becoming a matter of ticking boxes and insist that it is open-ended, challenging and creative. Then, without labelling any lessons “entrepreneurship”, and without necessarily creating model or practice exercises in entrepreneurship (though such programmes as Young Enterprise and the Engineering Education Scheme are excellent introductions for some), we can help to equip would-be entrepreneurs with the personal skills and the confidence to identify the area that fascinates them, to aim high and to succeed.

Bernard Trafford

Headmaster