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 to encourage entrepreneurs to come up with ideas for tackling what organizers describe as Britain’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education and training. ‘learning.
Taking the form of a £1billion fund, the Big Education Challenge was created to help entrepreneurs develop ideas that could help students thrive in life, rather than just preparing them to take – and hopefully pass – exams.
That’s a laudable goal, but what does entrepreneurship mean in the context of a school system that tends to resist change, and perhaps for understandable reasons?
Of course, entrepreneurs are already active in learning and development. This is especially true in the corporate world where employers’ desire to upskill their workers while controlling their budgets has provided opportunities for a plethora of innovative course and training providers. Likewise, the web is full of education-adjacent solutions for individuals seeking to improve their skills or knowledge. Language apps, for example, or massive open online courses provided by the university.
But when it comes to driving change within the education system itself, things get a little trickier. An employer can try a new online training. If that doesn’t work, very little harm is done. Other options will certainly be available.
But if you start ringing the changes in the way children and young adults work and study in school, there may be long-term consequences. Caireen Goddard is Senior Director, Impact, at Big Change, the charity that organizes the Big Education Challenge. Education, she acknowledges, is an “important issue”. Thus, change tends to come 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 get it right.”
Research by the charity suggests there is widespread dissatisfaction among young people, with 64% of respondents aged 18-25 saying the education system has not prepared them for life and 73% saying that the mix of materials was not what they needed. More than 70% felt that an opportunity was missed to reform education in the wake of the pandemic.
The polls may be flawed, but the responses suggest there is a demand for change. Where there is perhaps less consensus is what form this change might take and who can implement it.
Try the challenge
And that may be where the Big Education Challenge could help. As Goddard explains, the initiative is divided into two categories. The Groundbreaker Challenge, aimed at people between the ages of 18 and 25 with great ideas, and the Gamechanger Challenge, which is designed to attract candidates with a proven track record in impactful projects. £700,000 is available for the winner of the Gamechanger Challenge, with the remaining £300,000 going to the Groundbreaker category.
But is the education sector open to innovation? As Goddard recalls, twenty years ago the Ministry of Education had an innovation unit, but this has since been abandoned. “It’s a very risk-averse industry,” she says.
Does this mean that the good ideas and business plans that come out of 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 stages) by Big Big Change. “It allows schools to understand the well-being of their students,” she says. It is beginning to expand to all schools and has received additional funding from the Times Educational Supplement.
Likewise, companies that offer services — such as additional courses — outside of the core curriculum can also find ground. Goddard points to Rekindle School, which offers weekend lessons to pupils in Manchester. It also received funding from Big Change.
There is also room for innovation in areas of education that are perhaps not, as they stand, sufficiently taken into account in the current system. Goddard cites Oracy – education around fluent speaking – as an example. This is an area in which another Big Change-backed company, Voice21, is active.
So there are opportunities for impact-driven businesses. It is hoped that the challenge will bring more to the surface. So far, there have been 100 entries for a competition that will end in February next year. But what does success look like? “If we get 15 to 20 promising ideas from people who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten support, that would be an amazing result,” says Goddard.