Mark Goyder is a senior advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He’s the founder of Tomorrow’s Company and co-author with Ong Boon Hwee of Entrusted: Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation, published by World Scientific in 2020.
A virtual garden. A clothing company for pets. A smart toothbrush that monitors your oral health as you use it. A multi-purpose bedside lamp, charging point, alarm, and Bluetooth speaker. An app designed to help people in the healthy management of their nutrition, their stock control, and their menu planning. An end-of-term conference.
Question: What do all of these have in common?
All except one are business ideas developed by the year 10 students of Samworth Church Academy in Nottinghamshire.
The exception is the conference. The idea for this was not primarily developed by the students. But the planning, the management, and the delivery were the responsibility of those 15-year-olds: the choreography, the logistics, the catering with cakes and scones baked in the Academy’s kitchen, the opening and closing speeches. That was all done by them.
It was the culmination of 12 sessions of Project Can Do — a programme of self-discovery and essential skills training delivered through project-based learning. Its ambition has been to empower students to take control of their futures.
The conference was attended by the Academy’s Principal, Lisa McVeigh, and the diverse group of people whom Tomorrow’s Company, under the leadership of Programme Director Jon Maguire, had brought together to launch the students on this journey.
Students told the audience what they had learned from the programme. “I learned how to listen to other people’s ideas.” “I learned about the 5 Whys [an approach originally made famous in Toyota] and used it in the planning of the conference.”
“I learned how to find out about things; that you need to look in different places.”
“This was an experiment long in the making,” said Lisa McVeigh. For some time, she had been discussing with Academy Chair Nick Linney how to introduce students to transferable skills such as leadership, team working, problem-solving, resilience, and communication, while developing their own business ideas and sharpening their instinct for enterprise.
I’ve known Nick as chair of Linney Group, one of the family businesses in the world that I most admire. We have talked over the years about the excitement and creativity which life in a well-led business offers. We’ve both felt that there are too few opportunities for young people to learn about this through the formal education system.
Jon Maguire, our programme director, is well suited to pioneering work. He left school at 18, armed with average grades and some uninspiring career advice. At 30, he received some very blunt life coaching from a terminally ill friend. This inspired him to carve out an entrepreneurial “career” on his own terms.
He has started several businesses and worked in youth development. This included a pioneering expedition programme working with young people from deprived backgrounds. He joined Tomorrow’s Company with a determination to engage, and encourage the creativity of, young students for whom conventional academic routes appeared to offer little hope.
For decades it seems to me that the world of careers education has been spinning its wheels in a formulaic attempt to help students match qualifications to work choices. What has been missing has been the motivation and the grip on reality that only tangible experience can offer. Yet, how do you offer experience to 15-year-olds? And how do you help them to choose, with little knowledge of the world of work and its myriad career pathways?
This is the gap that Project Can Do begins to fill. Students at the conference praised course sessions run by successful local entrepreneurs and other role models who had themselves struggled at school; a Business Presentation Masterclass created by the Peter Jones Foundation; communications and public speaking training; problem-solving and innovation workshops drawn from the “lean thinking” movement; classic teamwork exercises to plan and deliver the safe descent of an egg to the ground under time and raw material constraints; an eye-opening visit to the state of the art creative facilities of the Mansfield-based Linney Group offices.
The Can-Do mentality is infectious. Parents have testified to the changes they have sensed in the outlook of their offspring. The local business sponsors have spotted talent in young people who, because of their grades or lack of them, would not normally have caught their attention. We’ve seen a few confident young leaders emerge; some outside-the-box thinkers, creatives, planners, and entrepreneurs soon to be a fresh resource working for themselves or for local organisations.
Too many people talk about business as a mechanistic process of financial inputs and outputs. I see business and investment as being like the harvest. We plant for the future, looking after the soil, nurturing young growth, respecting nature, keeping one eye on the weeds and the other on the horizon.
Together with the Academy, we are now discussing how best to build on this work so that the excitement we have ignited in one group of 15-year-olds is not lost. Please contact Tomorrow’s Company and tell us what areas of enterprise education you would like to see included in a secondary school programme of this kind.
Help us re-imagine the way we introduce the next generation to the world of business, so that their children’s generation reap a better harvest than they have inherited from us.
Next year, the ambition is to replicate this first pilot in five schools around the country, working in partnership with like-minded local businesses and other partner organisations. If you would like to involve your business and know a school that might benefit from the Can-Do approach, please let me know.