Sunday, 10 October 2010

Give the kids a chance

I attended a meeting organised by the local board of Young Enterprise in the week.

Designed to bring local businesses and local schools together to put renewed energy into the Young Enterprise Scheme, it was, in fact, a rather dowdy, curly sandwich affair with an abysmal turnout and little to suggest it was a pivotal moment in the future of the scheme.

The sad fact is that Young Enterprise in the Eastbourne and Wealden area is dead. Lacking the support of both businesses and schools, this once great mainstay of extra-curricular activity has withered on the vine. The question is why?

Entrepreneurship has never been so 'cool' amongst young people. Programmes like the Apprentice and Dragons' Den top the ratings and the young founders of FaceBook, Twitter and Skype are global icons to the digital native generation. In schools, Business Studies is now a popular choice at A-level with students recognising that it is more likely to enhance their employment prospects than some of the more esoteric options will ever do.

Local businesses too are keen to put something back. Even in a time of recession, many businesses are still looking for opportunities to develop their staff and build a corporate social responsibility agenda - particularly if it can be achieved without writing a cheque.

So what is wrong?

The mission of Young Enterprise is sound: 'To ignite the spirit of enterprise in young people throughout the UK'.

The operation of the scheme, however, is cumbersome. There is too much emphasis on producing useless tat to foist on sympathetic grandparents at Christmas and too little on great ideas and vision.

The management infrastructure is top heavy and weak too. UK Boards, Regional Boards, Development Managers, Link Managers, Finance operations and Administrative support all layer on cost and bureaucracy which has to be borne by the participating schools in the first instance and the tax payer eventually. The local representatives, while undeniably well intentioned, looked tired and out of touch.

Vitally, the schools in the region are disengaged and it is a sign of the inherent weakness of the current operation that there seems to be little understanding of why this should be the case. Is it as simple as the £500 fee that schools have to pay each year to enter the programme, or is there a deeper cause in the lack of fit with the national curriculum, or a lack of teacher time and commitment? These questions need to be asked and answered.

The Young Enterprise brand is established, but faded. The future of our young people and the spirit of enterprise in our economy is too valuable to be allowed to fade in the same way.

With university places at a premium and the job market increasingly hostile for young people, there is surely no more important time to be putting fire in the bellies of our young entrepreneurs. Small businesses employ 57% of the working population and if we don't ensure a constant supply of new ventures, we will be destined to a permanent spiral of high unemployment and decline.

Can the existing infrastructure and brand of Young Enterprise be turned around and made into something good, or is it now time to re-engage with businesses and schools, understand what is really needed in the 21st Century, and launch something new and fresh?

I tend towards the latter.