Education is risk-averse, so is there room for entrepreneur-led innovation?

Education is risk-averse, so is there room for entrepreneur-led innovation?

What role can entrepreneurs play in the development of the UK education system?

That’s a question raised by the launch of a new initiative which aims to encourage entrepreneurs to come forward with ideas to address what organizers describe as the UK’s “one size fits all” approach to education and learning.

In the form of a £1 billion prize fund, the Big Education Challenge has been established to support entrepreneurs as they develop ideas that have the potential to help students thrive in life, rather than just preparing them to move up – and hopefully – pass exams.

It’s a worthy goal, but what does entrepreneurship mean in the context of a school system that tends to be resistant to change, and perhaps for understandable reasons?

Entrepreneurs are of course already active in learning and development. This is especially true in the corporate world where employers’ desire to upgrade their workers while keeping budgets under control has opened up opportunities for a multitude of innovative course and training providers. In the same way, the web is flooded with education-based solutions aimed at private individuals who want to improve their skills or knowledge. Language apps, for example, or university-provided massive open online courses.

But when it comes to driving change within the core of the education system itself, things get a little more difficult. An employer can try out a new online training course. If it doesn’t work, there is very little damage. Other options are sure to be available.

But if you start calling the changes around the way children and young adults work and study at school, it can have long-term consequences. Caireen Goddard is Senior Director, Impact, at Big Change, the charity that organizes the Big Education Challenge. Education, she acknowledges, is “high stakes”. Therefore, changes tend to come slowly rather than in disruptive waves.

The need for change

But Goddard is keen to make the case that change is necessary. “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 by the charity suggests there is 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 was not what they needed. More than 70 percent believed that an opportunity to reform education has been missed in the wake of the pandemic.

Surveys may be imperfect, but the responses suggest that changes are needed. Where there is perhaps less consensus is what form that change might take and who might deliver it.

Take the challenge

And perhaps this is where the great educational challenge can help. As Goddard explains, the initiative is divided into two categories. The Groundbreaker Challenge, aimed at 18- to 25-year-olds with great ideas, and the Gamechanger Challenge, which is designed to attract participants with a track record of leading high-impact ventures. £700,000 is up for grabs for the winner of the Gamechanger Challenge with the remaining £300,000 awarded to the Groundbreaker category.

But is the education sector open to innovation? As Goddard recalls, twenty years ago the Department of Education had an innovation unit, but it has since been abandoned. “It’s a very risk-averse sector,” she says.

So does that mean any 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 days) by Big Big Change. “It gives schools an understanding of student well-being,” she says. It is starting to scale across schools and has received additional funding from the Times Education Supplement.

In the same way, businesses that offer services – for example additional classes – outside the core plan can also find out. Goddard points to the Rekindle School, which offers weekend courses to students in Manchester. It has also received funding from Big Change.

There is also room for innovation in areas of education which, as things stand, may not be given enough weight within the current system. Goddard cites Oracy – education around fluent oral expression – as an example. This is an area where another Big Change-backed venture, Voice21, is active.

So there are opportunities for impact-led ventures. It is hoped that the challenge will bring more people to the surface. So far, 100 applications have been received for a competition which ends in February next year. But what does success look like? “If we get 15 to 20 ideas with potential from people who otherwise wouldn’t have received support, that would be an incredible result,” says Goddard.

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