What role can entrepreneurs play in the development of the UK education system?
It’s a question raised by the launch of a new initiative aimed at encouraging entrepreneurs to come up with ideas to tackle what organizers are calling the UK’s ‘one size fits all’ approach to education and learning .
A £1 billion prize fund, the Big Education Challenge was set up to help entrepreneurs come up with ideas that have the potential to help students succeed in life, rather than just preparing them to take exams – and hopefully – to pass.
That’s a worthy goal, but what does entrepreneurship mean in the context of a school system that, for perhaps understandable reasons, tends to resist change?
Of course, entrepreneurs are already active in the field of learning and development. This is particularly true in the corporate world, where employers’ desire to upskill their employees while keeping budgets under control has created opportunities for a variety of innovative course and training providers. Likewise, the Internet is full of education-related solutions aimed at individuals who want to improve their skills or knowledge. Language apps, for example, or massive open online courses provided by universities.
But when it comes to driving change at the core of the education system itself, things get a little trickier. An employer can try a new online training course. If it doesn’t work, very little damage will be done. Other options will certainly be available.
But when you start changing the way children and young adults work and learn in school, it can have long-term consequences. Caireen Goddard is Senior Director, Impact at Big Change, the charity organizing the Big Education Challenge. Education, she concedes, is “high risk.” Therefore, change comes slowly rather than in disruptive waves.
The need for change
But Goddard is keen to argue that change is needed. “The system is too standardized,” she says. “It’s one size fits all, and if you don’t fit, it’s hard to succeed.”
Research conducted by the charity suggests widespread dissatisfaction among young people, with 64 per cent of 18-25 year old respondents saying the education system did not prepare them for life and 73 per cent saying the mix of subjects did not what they needed. More than 70 percent felt an opportunity to reform education was missed in the wake of the pandemic.
Polls may be imperfect, but the responses suggest there is a need for change. Where there is perhaps less consensus is what form this change might take and who can effect it.
To accept the challenge
And maybe the Big Education Challenge will help here. As Goddard explains, the initiative falls into two categories. The Groundbreaker Challenge, aimed at people aged 18-25 with bright ideas, and the Gamechanger Challenge, designed to attract participants with a track record of leading, high-impact ventures. £700,000 will be available to the Gamechanger Challenge winner, with the remaining £300,000 allocated to the Groundbreaker category.
But is the education sector open to innovation? As Goddard recalls, the Department of Education had an innovation department twenty years ago, but it has since been abandoned. “It’s a very risk-averse sector,” she says.
So does that mean that any good ideas and business plans that emerge from the challenge are likely to fall on deaf ears?
Goddard says progress can be made. She cites the example of Tranquiliti, a mental health tool funded (in its early days) by Big Big Change. “It gives schools an understanding of the well-being of their students,” she says. It is beginning to expand across schools and has received additional funding from the Times Educational Supplement.
Likewise, companies that offer services – such as additional classes – outside of the core curriculum may also find favor. Goddard points to Rekindle School, which offers weekend classes for students in Manchester. It was also funded by Big Change.
There is also room for innovation in areas of education that may not be adequately addressed in the current system. As an example, Goddard cites Oracy – Education for Fluent Oral Expression. This is an area where another Big Change-backed company, Voice21, is active.
So there are opportunities for impact-oriented ventures. It is hoped that the challenge will bring more to the surface. So far there have been 100 applications for a competition that ends in February next year. But what does success look like? “If we could get 15 to 20 ideas with potential from people who wouldn’t otherwise have gotten support, that would be an incredible result,” says Goddard.