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Schools need to unpack ‘enterprise’ and ‘entrepreneurship’, say Jacek Brant and Alastair Falk

Enterprise education (EE) is now compulsory in the English school curriculum. Can enterprise education be viewed as a school subject or is it an attitude to teaching? How may schools ‘teach’ enterprise? And does success require basic assumptions about how schools are organised to be challenged?

What is EE?

There is a long-standing problem of definition with EE and its learning outcomes (Davies and Brant, 2006). There are three broad types of definition:

  • enterprise as teaching entrepreneurship
  • generic project development
  • development of personal ‘enterprising’ dispositions, such as creativity, problem solving, and flexibility.

The DfES definition is a variation of all three, describing it as ‘enterprise capability, supported by better financial capability and economic and business understanding.’

These definitions have drastically different implications for teaching and organisation of the curriculum. If the purpose of enterprise education is to prepare students to start or manage businesses then enterprise education ought to develop the knowledge, understanding and skills that are relevant for running a company or a social enterprise. In this case the link between enterprise education and business studies is close, and the appropriate type of programmes would be the familiar Young Enterprise model. However, if the purpose of enterprise education is to develop students’ capacity to take the initiative in any situation, this could arguably be created in any part of the curriculum. Ofsted guidance suggests that successful enterprise education requires ‘an enterprising learning environment in which students are encouraged to take the initiative.’

Environmental view

This ‘environmental’ argument highlights much of the confusion and apparent difficulty about implementation. Enterprise, in this broader definition, is about something alive, where outcomes are hard to predict, and which requires an ability to cope with change and the unknown. Developing this in schools raises the questions highlighted in a speech by Phil Hope, the skills minister: ‘Teaching enterprise is not an easy thing for teachers to do [sic]…It requires teachers to teach differently – sometimes to back off, to allow their students to take risks, and perhaps to fail a task. And it means that school leaders need to see any such failure not as a failure on the part of the teacher, but as part of the student’s development.’ (Hope, 2006)

It is perhaps no surprise that the government strategy on enterprise has none of the prescription of previous strategies such as literacy or numeracy. According to Phil Hope in another part of the above speech, ‘It is about persuading schools themselves of the value of enterprise education. We are not making them follow some prescriptive guidance…We aim to create a new “effective demand”…when schools want enterprise because they believe it’s the right thing to do’.

In the current educational climate of data-driven achievement and league tables, schools feel themselves to have very little flexibility to do what they may believe is right. How can schools begin to recognise attributes and attitudes such as ‘creating and implementing new ideas, handling uncertainty and responding positively to change’?

Unpacking issues

So, what is really going on here? We would suggest that there is confusion because the literature and the ‘official definitions’ conflate two subtly different concepts, enterprise and entrepreneurship. Our experience of visiting schools leads us to the following observations as to what this often means in practice. Firstly, the educational culture is that teachers do what they can, so if, for example, the school becomes an enterprise specialist school, they want to do things properly and they take the transformation seriously. But they quickly discover that, unlike other areas or subjects, they have to write the rules themselves. This has two results: on the one hand, it does release energy and shifts power away from a centrally dictated curriculum, so in a real sense it does encourage teachers to become more enterprising themselves. On the other hand, once released, schools tend to assume that enterprise is really entrepreneurship and so they come up with projects that are essentially classic entrepreneurial activities – such as small business start-ups, Christmas fairs, and raising money for charities. 

While this appears to fit, then, two of our definitions (entrepreneurship and project development) the difficulty remains over where and how to articulate and evaluate those elusive ‘enterprising attributes’. This is compounded by the suspicion that these so called enterprising attributes may not of course be something new at all. Perhaps they are just what we would expect to find in definitions of good teaching (problem solving and teamwork for example) or perhaps they are simply alternative expressions for creativity?

Enterprising schools

The somewhat confusing government approach to enterprise education raises issues about whether schools can indeed do enterprise. Perhaps they raise a deeper question as to whether ‘enterprise’ really exists.

However, facing these very tensions head on may be the necessary first step in creating the genuinely ‘enterprising school’.  In such a space, not only will teaching and learning styles reflect an innovative, creative and open-ended culture, but all members of the school community will feel equally free to generate and develop their ideas. Ofsted guidance suggests that successful enterprise education requires ‘an enterprising learning environment in which students are encouraged to take the initiative’ with teaching in the style of an enterprise process that is akin to project working.

Dr Jacek Brant is lecturer of business and economics education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Alastair Falk is director of the Academy of Enterprise, a not-for-profit organisation helping schools develop more enterprising approaches across the curriculum.

First published in Learning for Life, March 2007

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