Onwards and Upwards?

Onwards and Upwards?

Catherine Brentnall explores the issue of progression and draws on lessons from mainstream education that could inform the practice of entrepreneurial educators. 

One of the recommendations to come out of Enterprise for All, the recent Lord Young review of enterprise education[1] in the England, is the principle that young people should experience a ‘captive and continuous’ learning journey in order to develop their entrepreneurial thinking and behaviour.  This means that that just like in any other subject, there should be a coherent and progressive programme of learning that builds on pupils’ previous experience and knowledge and challenges them on to the next stage over time. A simple idea, but harder to realise when the precise knowledge, skills and attitudes have not been laid down in an agreed curriculum, like for example in maths, literacy or science.

Indeed, even in these subjects, where there are often nationally prescribed learning objectives for young people at different stages of education, the issue of poor progression and disengagement from learning looms large. One study, led by Professor Maurice Galton, a researcher in children’s educational transitions and progression, found that following a move to secondary school pupils did not find the curriculum sufficiently challenging, and overall were finding school a less enjoyable experience. Galton challenges educators to ask themselves how they can shift focus “towards strategies that sustain the ‘excitement of learning’ (and the commitment to learning that such excitement generates).”

If we care about the quality, progression and outcomes of young people’s entrepreneurial learning, we should be asking such questions about our own field too.

Let’s take the ubiquitous bun sale. A staple of young people’s entrepreneurial experience in primary schools, and the go-to activity for summer/winter/Easter fayres, Mother’s day, Father’s day and Valentine’s day and a host of other local fund raising endeavours. Children are baking and selling buns in schools everywhere, and this is often cited as a part of their entrepreneurial learning-by-doing programme (in Year 7 in secondary school, as much as in Year 2 in primary school). But unless this activity is carefully planned, with learning objectives that have been identified based on gaps in students’ entrepreneurial knowledge and thinking, how do we know whether children are getting any better at anything other than cracking eggs and sugar craft? And what is the potential impact of such repetition? Boredom? Disengagement? Simply not having the opportunity to realise the entrepreneurial ambitions that started to be nurtured through primary education? 

A poignant example of the potential impact is the case study of Anita, a participant in an ethnographic research project we commissioned two years ago. The study, ‘‘Are we ready?’ Enterprising education for an enterprise culture,’ aimed to understand young people’s experiences of education and enterprise learning, and involved an in-depth ethnographic approach to reveal life ‘through their eyes.’

Anita’s case study named her the ‘memento keeper’, and the research described her showing and telling about treasured photos and keepsakes related to her enterprise learning in primary school. During these conversations she talked about the financial crisis in the UK at the time, key learning outcomes from her primary school enterprise curriculum and meeting a young female entrepreneur who had visited her primary school.

However (depressingly), her entrepreneurial ambitions had taken a dent since she graduated to secondary school. Whereas previously she had wanted to combine her love of enterprise and dancing and start up a dance class business, now she expressed uncertainty about whether that aspiration was possible to realise.

The researchers highlighted that a critical factor for Anita’s uncertainty stemmed from the fact that her new secondary school was not as involved in enterprise learning and she felt that she was no longer in an environment where she was actively encouraged to think entrepreneurially, nor given the tools and opportunities to do so. It was evident that removal from an environment in which her entrepreneurial spirit was positively encouraged, meant that she no longer saw it as a strong possibility for her future career. These feelings of disappointment were not limited to Anita personally; her family also felt aggrieved that her aspirations and interests had no outlet: “It’s alright putting ideas [in their minds] at primary school, but they need to follow it up! They haven’t followed it up… and it has died a death.” For her family, there was a sense of pride around Anita’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurial learning. The fact that it was dissipating was a source of frustration and disillusionment.

The case study of Anita illuminates the risk that the valuable lessons learned in primary school were going to come to nothing without progression in enterprise learning opportunities in secondary school. The researchers considered the long term educational impacts of these fleeting and inconsistent experiences, and concluded: “If enterprise learning is always being ‘trialed’ in piecemeal fashion, it may remain unknown what the greater benefits of broader and more committed implementation may bring.”

As was highlighted at the beginning of this article, effective transition from primary to secondary school is recognised as a crucial factor in the quality of children’s education. So what are the factors that make a successful transition? Three key factors have been identified as helping to contribute -  social adjustment (pupils need to make friends and develop their social and personal skills and self-confidence), institutional adjustment (pupils need to settle into their new school life and routines), and curriculum interest and continuity (pupils need work that is at the right level, style and challenge so it builds on their progress at primary school).

Enterprising and entrepreneurial learning, activities and culture supports these factors by providing opportunities for collaboration and confidence building, by developing learning with suitable levels of challenge, excitement and relevance and by enabling continuity and progression in skill and knowledge development and teaching styles. To do this effectively though, will take increased collaboration between educators from different phases and from different schools, sharing and developing practice together. And it will take greater collaboration between educators and their students to co-produce entrepreneurial learning experiences that truly build on what young people have previously experienced

and make sure they learn in an environment and culture that supports them to explore and realise their ambitions.  

[1] The equivalent of the entrepreneurial education concept nurtured in Entrepreneurship360.