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

What role can entrepreneurs play in developing the UK education system?

It is a question posed by the launch of a new initiative aimed at encouraging entrepreneurs to come forward with ideas to tackle what regulators describe as Britain’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching and learning.

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

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

Of course, entrepreneurs are already very active in the field of learning and development. This is particularly true in the corporate world where the desire of employers to improve the skills of their workers while keeping budgets in check has created opportunities for a plethora of innovative courses and training providers. Likewise, the web is full of neighborhood education solutions aimed at individuals seeking to improve their skills or knowledge. Language applications, for example, or the huge open online courses offered by the university.

But when it comes to driving change at the core of the education system itself, things get more complicated. The employer can try a new online course. If it doesn’t work, not much harm will be done. Other options will certainly be available.

But if you start to ding changes around the way children and young people work and attend school, there could be long-term consequences. Karen Goddard is Senior Director, Impact, at Big Change, a charity organizing the Education Big Challenge. She acknowledges that education is “high stakes”. Thus, change tends to come slowly rather than in disruptive waves.

The need for change

But Goddard is keen to prove that change is necessary. “The system is very standardized,” she says. “It’s one size fits all, and if you’re not fit, it’s hard to be successful.”

Research by the charity suggests there is widespread dissatisfaction on the part of young people, with 64 per cent of respondents aged 18-25 saying the education system did not prepare them for life and 73 per cent saying the mix of subjects had. Not what they need. More than 70 percent considered a missed opportunity to reform education in the wake of the pandemic.

The surveys may be incomplete, but the responses indicate that there is a demand for change. There is perhaps less consensus on what form this change might take and who could bring it about.

Face the challenge

And perhaps this is where the Great Education Challenge might help. As Goddard explains, initiative falls into two categories. The Groundbreaker Challenge, aimed at 18-25 year olds with good ideas, and the Gamechanger Challenge, designed to attract contestants with a track record of leading impactful projects. £700,000 is available to the winner of the Gamechanger Challenge with the remaining £300,000 going to the Groundbreaker class.

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.

Does this mean that 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 that was funded (in its early days) by Big Big Change. “It provides schools with an understanding of their students’ well-being,” she says. It began to expand across schools and received more funding from the Thames Educational Supplement.

Similarly, projects that provide services – such as extra classes – outside the core curriculum can also find traction. Goddard is referring to the Rekindle School, which offers weekend lessons to pupils in Manchester. It has also received funding from Big Change.

There is also room for innovation in areas of education that, as things stand, may not have been given enough weight within the current system. Goddard cites Oracy—the teaching about fluent oral expression—as an example. This is an area where another Big Change-supported project, Voice21, is very active.

So there are opportunities for impact-led projects. Hopefully, the challenge will bring more to the surface. So far, there have been 100 applications for a contest that 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 had support, that would be an amazing result,” says Goddard.

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