Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Lessons in money management

Published By: The Independent - 26 Jul 2007

Forget history and geography. The hot new subject in schools is entrepreneurship. Today's pupils are being given lessons in how to take risks, manage money, solve problems, seize opportunities and market ideas. Along the way they are learning teamwork, leadership, time management and IT skills. And they are consolidating their basic education in the real world, children quickly come to realise, you have to be good at writing, reading and calculating to get anywhere.

Enterprise now has a higher profile in 97 per cent of secondary schools than it did two years ago, according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and the percentage of students and teachers involved has leapt from 18 to 80 per cent. The new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is one of the subject's most ardent fans, and last year gave an additional £180m over three years enough for £17,000 for each secondary school. What's more, under recent changes "economic well-being and financial capability" have been added to the national curriculum.

Yet the full force of this entrepreneurial approach to school life is only just beginning to show through energetic practitioners such as Paul Gilbert, whose work has reached every corner of Highbury Grove in north London, the school that came to prominence in the Seventies under its disciplinarian headmaster, Dr Rhodes Boyson. The school is struggling to transform itself from a sink comprehensive into a specialist business and enterprise college, with rising results.

As the school's business enterprise coordinator, Gilbert has found funds for an organic garden, built links with businesses, set up a mentoring scheme, organised masterclasses, raised money for partnerships between the school and art galleries, started a school orchestra, helped pupils set up a recycling firm that collects used print cartridges from local post offices and doctors' surgeries, and started a project to help schools in Indonesia that were flattened by the 2004 tsunami.

"We developed a link with schools in Aceh, and thought, 'What can we do that helps us and benefits them?'" he says. The result is a project where artwork created by the Indonesian pupils is made into greeting cards by the London pupils, and sold to raise money for the Indonesian schools. With a bit of luck, a large retail outlet might agree to put them on sale.

Gilbert has encouraged his colleagues to think more entrepreneurially, and to introduce ideas of enterprise into their lessons by linking classroom work to practical projects and situations. Some have taken it up enthusiastically; others have taken time to come on board. More than three-quarters of teachers at the school, he says, are now actively including enterprise teaching in lessons.
"But the main aim is to improve attainment. We always ask, 'Is this going to help our students?'"

The answer, at least according to some pupils, is an unequivocal "yes". Among the many projects that Gilbert has got off the ground is a school bank a branch of NatWest that is run every week by pupils in the school hall.
Cyan Koay, 13, says that working as a cashier has strengthened her maths and boosted her confidence, while her fellow bank worker Lauren Price, also 13, says she has improved her people skills. "You learn that to talk to lots of different people you have to change your manner according to who they are," says Price. "I might now do my work experience at NatWest."

Their manager, Lungisa Nkanyuza, 12, who aims to study law at Harvard, says that working with the bank and with the cartridge recycling company have given him more confidence. "With the recycling scheme we had to ring up doctors and dentists and ask if we could put up posters," says Nkanyuza. "It was very scary at first. You don't want them to hang up on you because you are just a child, but after a while you learn to say it in a way so that they will listen to you and put you through to the manager."

Gilbert says the school works with a "fantastic" local education-business partnership and has been given support and resources by a number of "amazing" businessmen. As a deprived school in London, it also gets more than its share of offers of help, allowing pupils to visit top law firms and enjoy the best artistic experiences. "To be honest, we're now at the point where we are having to turn things down," Gilbert says.

His own role is crucial. He teaches 10 sessions of PE, and the rest of his time is devoted to enterprise. "In my experience, you can't do this without someone in place like me. Teachers are so busy, and if you haven't got someone in school prepared to do the work, and someone who loves it, nothing will happen.

"I could spend all my time on the recycling business alone, there's so much to do. And if you're dealing with people in the outside world it's no good getting back to them three weeks after they've sent you an email." Also, he points out, no business-school venture goes well unless there is a committed person at each end to make things happen.

That person also has to be a good fit for the role, and it is easy to see that Gilbert's assured and easy manner would inspire confidence in commercial partners. With a background in running his own small companies, teaching in Ethiopia and Brunei, and playing football in Chicago, he brings broad horizons and worldly experience to the job, and his enterprise centre is an oasis of modern calm in a dilapidated school that, for many years, was a byword for all that was wrong in state-funded education.

Founded as a boys' comprehensive in the Sixties, Highbury Grove was ruled with a rod of iron by its first head, the right-wing Rhodes Boyson, who went on to become a Tory education minister. Later, though, the school spiralled down into chaos and failure. As recently as two years ago, when things were improving, a supply teacher secretly filmed wild scenes in the classroom for a sensational television documentary although teachers and pupils protest that this was an inaccurate picture of the school which, under its current head, Truda White, is coming on in leaps and bounds. Last year, the number of students getting five good GCSEs soared from 37 to 50 per cent national average results in a school where the intake is well below average and a recent Ofsted report declared it a "good" school.

Even so, it faces many difficulties. It serves the transient and deprived population of north London, and still has twice as many boys as girls. It has a high number of pupils with behavioural problems, and is waiting for work to start on replacing its shabby buildings with a new campus.

"Students like coming in here," says Gilbert, getting up to answer a buzz at the secure door of the well-equipped business centre, "it's a place they feel safe." When he later steps outside, it is straight into an aggressive playground argument that staff are working to defuse. "A normal day," he observes wryly, as he skirts the throng.

So could teaching entrepreneurship be the answer to making education more lively and relevant to all pupils, even the most disaffected?

There is no doubt that, done properly, it gets exciting results. This year Gilbert won the Teaching Awards Enterprise Teacher of the Year in London and is now up for the national prize. But against him is an impressive array of other enterprise stars, including one teacher whose pupils have started numerous companies, and another who has encouraged her special school students to set up and run their own school shop.

But there are problems. Thinking entrepreneurially is a mindset that not many teachers possess instinctively, so, like anything else, it has been poorly taught. Many schools remain puzzled about what precisely it entails, while traditionalists scoff at the idea that developing broad business skills can be as useful as studying Macbeth or learning about glaciers.

Two years ago, Ofsted found that a third of schools did not have a clear understanding of the topic, or of what they were supposed to be teaching, and many people still think it must mean pushing children out into the world of work at an early age.

"Gordon Brown was right when he said enterprise should be taught in the classroom, not the boardroom," says Declan Swan, chief executive of the National Education Business Partnership Network, which brings together more than 100 local partnerships. "Teaching enterprise is not about turning children into entrepreneurs. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, but we can all be more ind a documentof work, and showing children that what they learn at school is relevant to how they live their lives."

Things are now going in the right direction for older pupils, he says, but more work is needed with younger children.

"In two years we've managed to move on the agenda at secondary level. Now we need to apply the same sort of thinking to primary schools."