When it comes to ‘entrepreneurship education’, do we understand what we are encouraging?

business-plan-300x232There seems to be a strange disconnect between the contemporary trend towards encouraging entrepreneurial education in schools and the response of Tommie Rose’s schools towards his entrepreneurial behaviour.

A few months ago, many news outlets featured the story, wherein Tommie Rose, a 15-year-old boy from a council estate in Ordsall, started selling snacks and sweets at his school, and was able to earn £14,000 in three years. Yet this is not the sole reason for all the media attention. It is the fact that his school, Buile Hill High, and the one he attended prior, the Oasis Academy, both in Salford, have looked so negatively upon his entrepreneurial activity that the latter suspended him for ten days while the former is now threatening him with suspension. Another compelling angle to the story is that Rose explains he is saving the money for a university education – he has his sights set on a prestigious business degree from either Oxford or Cambridge, which his parents explain they would struggle to afford. This further serves to underscore the outpouring of positive sentiment in support of the young entrepreneur.

In June 2014, an Enterprise For All report by the Prime Minister’s adviser on competitiveness advised sweeping changes in primary and secondary schools in order to educate students about business and profit-making. Since then, at least five hundred primary schools across the UK have seen 20,000 children running their own businesses. Whilst it is not known whether either of the schools Rose attended have participated in entrepreneurial education, his actions are undoubtedly a product of the culture of entrepreneurialism that now pervades our society and is encouraged by popular media. In particular, Rose says he was inspired by entre-tainment – popular shows like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice – that gave him the idea that he, too, could find a gap in the market and provide something that customers wanted. And in an interesting twist of fate, now that Rose’s plight has gone public, the Dragons have taken to social media to show him their support.

Buile Hill High’s official response was to decry the ‘black market’ that they perceived Rose to have set up. But entrepreneurship has long been known to blur the boundary between legal and illegal – one has to think only of the Del Boy character from Only Fools and Horses. And although the notion of the entrepreneur has arguably been shined up in recent years to include characters like Steve Jobs, we should recall that one of Jobs’ earliest enterprises was selling hardware that enabled customers to get phone service illegally.

Clearly, not all budding entrepreneurs will engage in illicit activity – but we should remember that opportunities for profit often occur in places that fly under the radar of regulation. If we are asking children to be entrepreneurial, this includes schools and playgrounds. But when students respond in the way that both their schools and the wider society are asking of them, punishing them for their actions is not at all in keeping with the culture of entrepreneurialism we are ostensibly promoting.

It looks like we may soon need to decide: if it comes down to either the entrepreneurial spirit or the spirit of traditional education, which do we value more, and which do we preserve? Meanwhile, Tommie Rose looks set to gain considerably more profit as a result of the social capital he has gained from the news coverage: he was last seen selling an autographed Lucozade bottle on eBay for which the high bid was over £1M pounds. The question, it seems, thus begs repeating: do we truly understand the consequences of what we are encouraging?

Advertisements