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High Stakes: Education Is Risk-Averse So Is There Room For Entrepreneur-led Innovation?

What role can entrepreneurs play in the development of the United Kingdom’s education system?

It’s a question raised by the launch of a new initiative aimed at encouraging entrepreneurs to come forward with ideas to address what the organizers describe as Britain’s “one size fits all” approach to education and learning.

Taking the form of a £1 million 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 simply preparing them to sit – and hopefully – pass exams.

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

Of course, entrepreneurs are already active in the field of learning and development. This is particularly true in the corporate world where the desire of employers to upskill their workers while keeping budgets under control has provided opportunities for a plethora of innovative course and training providers. Equally, the web is awash with education-adjacent solutions aimed at private individuals seeking to improve their skills or knowledge. Language apps, for instance, 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 trickier. An employer can try out a new online training course. If it doesn’t work, very little harm is done. Other options will certainly be available.

But if you begin to ring the changes around the way that children and young adults work and study at school, there can be long-term consequences. Caireen Goddard is Senior Director, Impact, at Big Change, the charity that is organizing the Big Education Challenge. Education, she acknowledges, is “high stakes.” Thus,change tends 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 is one-size-fits-all and if you do not fit, it is hard to be successful.”

Research carried out by the charity suggests there is widespread dissatisfaction on the part of young people, with 64 percent of 18-25-year-old respondents saying the education system didn’t prepare them for life and 73 percent saying the mix of subjects was not what they needed. More than 70 percent took the view that an opportunity has been missed to reform education in the wake of the pandemic.

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

Taking The Challenge

And perhaps this is where the Big Education Challenge might help. As Goddard explains, the initiative is divided into two categories. The Groundbreaker Challenge, aimed at people aged 18 to 25 with good ideas, and the Gamechanger Challenge, which is designed to attract contestants with a track record of leading impactful ventures. £700,000 is available to the winner of the Gamechanger Challenge with the remaining £300,000 allocated 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 that has since been abandoned. “It is 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 Change. “It provides schools with an understanding of the wellbeing of their students,” she says. It is beginning to scale across schools and has received further funding from the Times Educational Supplement.

Equally, ventures that offer services – such as additional classes – outside of the core curriculum can also find traction . Goddard points to Rekindle School, which offers weekend classes to pupils in Manchester. It has also received funding from Big Change.

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

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

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