Enterprise education can equip children with the entrepreneurial skills and mindsets to develop and act on innovative ideas, whether they end up pursuing a career in business, government or science. However, while it is clear that teaching entrepreneurial skills and mindsets can be beneficial, the best way to teach them — especially at an early age — is uncertain.
This blog summarises the existing evidence on the benefits of enterprise education and explores some educational formats that may be particularly effective.
In broad terms, as reports from various organisations such as the Kauffman Foundation and the APPG for Entrepreneurship have described, there is evidence that enterprise education produces positive outcomes. One of the most comprehensive reviews to date, published by the European Commission in 2015, considered enterprise education initiatives across the education spectrum and identified benefits for individual students (e.g., higher employability and improved entrepreneurial skills and attitudes), as well as for the institutions that implement enterprise education (e.g., greater engagement of teachers and external stakeholders). These benefits in turn were found to have a positive impact on the wider economy and society, for example by increasing the rate of high-quality startups and making entrepreneurship accessible to groups at risk of social exclusion.
Importantly, the review concluded that benefits are greater when students participate in consecutive entrepreneurship experiences throughout their studies, beginning at primary school. Similar calls for early exposure to entrepreneurship have been made by organisations such as the World Economic Forum (2009), the APPG for microbusinesses (2014) and the APPG for entrepreneurship (2019). However, as I’ve written elsewhere, while the provision of enterprise education has progressed remarkably at a university level, much less is known about how to tailor enterprise education programmes to younger school children.
Early enterprise education can come in many forms, including meeting entrepreneurs in- or outside the classroom, creating a mini/junior company and participating in community challenges. Clearly, programme design matters: different types of programmes are likely to have different types of impact for different age groups. Which formats and design features may be particularly beneficial to expose school children to entrepreneurship?
One of the most well-evidenced formats takes a learning-by-doing approach: school children go through the process of creating a business during the course of up to an academic year, guided by mentors and teachers. The current evidence suggests that this approach can be effective both for primary and secondary school students. For example, an impact report of the Young Enterprise Company Programme in the UK, which can last anything from 12 weeks to one academic year, found various types of impact for 15-19 year olds, including higher self-esteem, resilience and confidence. A more robust evaluation in Sweden tracked the long-term impact of a similar programme 16 years after participants graduated. The findings revealed that those secondary school students who were exposed to the year-long programme were more likely to have started a business. Targeting even younger children, one of the few studies among primary school students, carried out in the Netherlands in 2014, found that entrepreneurial skills could be boosted for 11-12 year olds too, even when the duration of the programme is only five days.
Other studies have tested the impact of online programmes that could be scaled more easily. A Danish trial (funded by the Nesta-administered IGL) found that 14-15 year-old students who participated in a short online entrepreneurship programme reported higher levels of entrepreneurial intentions, even one year after the programme. The programme was role-model based and consisted of four one-hour sessions, indicating that even short exposure can have a lasting impact. A similar trial of an online entrepreneurial programme is still ongoing in Ecuador, which will add to the evidence base.
As the evidence base continues to expand — as well as the number of entrepreneurship programmes tailored to young children (like Citrus Saturday, Founders For Schools, inspiring the future, the fiver and tenner challenges), policy makers should take note. To unleash the broader economic and societal benefits of enterprise education, a widespread uptake is needed across the education spectrum. As I argued here, this requires systemic action. Specifically, I called for clearer ownership of enterprise education within government and dedicated national targets and strategies, ultimately to ensure every school-child has the opportunity to gain exposure to entrepreneurship.