10 September 2020

Schools should start early on training the next generation of entrepreneurs

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“When will I use this in real life?”

As schoolchildren return to the classroom, teachers will have to respond to a familiar question. They often have a good answer, but in a world where ways of working have changed dramatically over the past decade, and over the past several months, it’s a question policymakers should be asking too.

Take self-employment: many young people are seeking out the independence and flexibility of freelancing. In fact, the number of young people working for themselves has doubled since the turn of the millennium.

There’s been a cultural shift. Young people increasingly see entrepreneurship as a desirable path. More than half of 14-25 year olds have thought about starting a business.

Running your own business has many benefits, but also requires skills that are often, let’s face it, glossed over in school.

Likewise, technological advances such as the shift to remote work and the rise of online platforms, are disrupting old jobs and creating new ones. The challenge for educators is to develop a curriculum that is future-proof.

We should avoid hyperbole. Most young people won’t have to ‘invent a job’ as Tom Friedman once suggested. Similarly, while many of tomorrow’s job titles may be different to today’s, it is a futile task trying to forecast whether young people are more likely to become drone traffic operators or augmented reality marketing specialists.

But as I argue in a new paper for The Entrepreneurs Network and awarding body ABE ‘Educating Future Founders’ educators need to do more to equip students with the mindsets and traits that will allow them to succeed in the modern world of work. Not every student will, or should, become an entrepreneur. But almost everyone would benefit from becoming more entrepreneurial. The ability to stick at a task in the face of adversity, to proactively find creative solutions, and identify opportunities will become even more relevant in the coming years.

Entrepreneurship has traditionally been taught at universities, especially in business schools. But there is evidence that earlier interventions can develop the traits that are key to entrepreneurial success, even if they don’t provide a perfect blueprint for starting a business.

Research from Australia, Denmark, and the Netherlands shows that short, low-cost entrepreneurship education programmes targeted at students as young as 11 can raise awareness of entrepreneurship as a career path and develop entrepreneurial mindsets.

Of course, knowledge can fade. I would have serious trouble holding a conversation in French, despite five years of study and GCSE. But studies which follow up on students over a decade later show that participation can have long-term impacts. For instance, a Norwegian study found that adults who had taken part in a school entrepreneurship programme when they were 14-15 were more likely to be in leadership positions at work and less likely to be unemployed than otherwise similar students.

One large study with nearly 10,000 subjects found that Swedish students who had taken part in an entrepreneurship programme at school were more likely to start a business and earned more conditional upon having started a business more than a decade later.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that early exposure can affect long-run outcomes. Research on exposure to innovation finds that children who grow up in areas with more inventors are more likely to become inventors themselves.

Any attempt to reform the curriculum faces a common hurdle: time. If you were to add up all the new subjects and topics campaigners have called to be added to the curriculum then you might just squeeze half an hour a term in for maths. But teaching entrepreneurship shouldn’t be seen as competing with traditional subjects, but as a complement.

When students learn entrepreneurship, it forces them to apply the knowledge they have developed in other subjects. Seeing the real-world relevance of what they learn in other subjects can increase motivation and engagement. In Denmark, students taking part in an entrepreneurship programme were more likely to report that they ‘enjoy being in school’ and are less likely to say ‘I get bored a lot in school’. 

Understanding the applicability of classroom knowledge can also raise ambitions for further study. High school students who took part in NFTE, an extra-curricular programme that teaches business skills alongside financial literacy, doubled their interest in attending college.

Recent events highlight the value of teaching young people to be resilient and adaptable. As the world undergoes rapid economic change, entrepreneurship education can equip young people with the skills to adapt. Unfortunately, too often schools teach as if nothing has changed. If we can expand access to entrepreneurship education, we will not only support the next generation of founders and job creators, but also teach young people the skills they need to thrive in the modern economy.

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Sam Dumitriu is Research Director at The Entrepreneurs Network

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.