Our schools must be open to business so we can have a bright economic future

NOW that pupils are back at school, it’s time to help them get down to business. One key question they need to be asked is: “Hands up who wants to go into business?” Their answer will not only shape the life chances of millions of young people, but will also have a dramatic impact on the UK’s long-term economic prospects.

While organisations like Young Enterprise are helping to inspire and educate young people about business and enterprise, there is much more work to be done in getting business nearer the top of career wish lists. A recent survey of 3,000 parents with children aged 5-11 found that the top career ambitions for children were sports star (12 per cent), pop star (11 per cent) and actor/actress (11 per cent). Going into business did not even make it into the top ten.

Worryingly, these aspirations are reflected in subject choices at school, with business-related studies lagging in the popularity stakes. In the 2009/10 school year, just 7.6 per cent of students studied economics at A-level and only 1.4 per cent studied accounting. It is interesting to see that while a larger percentage of pupils took business studies at both A-level and GCSE (11.6 per cent and 11 per cent respectively), the actual number of pupils taking the GCSE course fell by 21 per cent from 2005.

It is not only the numbers studying business that are of concern, but also what pupils are learning. According to a recent CBI survey, 70 per cent of employers felt that school leavers did not demonstrate enough business awareness. An Ofsted report on business education from June 2011 went further, saying that students taking part in business-related education often had “only vague ideas about the economy, interest rates and their impact, recession, inflation, why prices vary and the ownership of companies.” This finding will no doubt be an important spur to addressing business-related subjects in the national curriculum review.

The focus on business education needs to be improved in our universities too. Management, economics and accounting were all less popular than media studies and sociology in 2010, and the growth in media studies (15 per cent over five years) continues to outstrip that found in both management science and economics (5 per cent and 12 per cent respectively).

In the UK, students are also less likely to continue their business education after graduation. The truth is that our top 10 business schools do a great job educating students from competing nations, but do less well in attracting British students, who, on average, make up just over 10 per cent of the student population.

Our competitors are clearly taking post–graduate business education more seriously. The UK only saw a 16 per cent increase in students taking the GMAT (the qualification required to apply for a MBA course) from 2005 to 2010, against a 62 per cent average increase across the growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

So how can we address these trends? Much can be done back in school. The Ofsted report referred to earlier highlighted that over a third of schools failed to provide sufficient opportunities for students to engage directly with local businesses.

It is vitally important to get more local business leaders into the classroom to put forward the case for business and to act as positive role models. They can bring much needed experience to schools, help nurture business talent and excite pupils about what can be achieved in the world of business. The Federation of Small Businesses is working to get another 500 schools and colleges to increase their engagement with businesses in the year ahead and is also encouraging its members to be school governors.

Work experience programmes go further, acting as a hands on way of applying and developing skills learnt in school. In Cheshire, Bentley has created a successful work experience scheme with local schools. The programme has delivered tangible benefits for 857 participants over the last five years, helping them gain experience, make better-informed career choices and increase their future earnings potential.

Businesses should be encouraged to engage more effectively in our universities, with both undergraduates and MBA students. This will enable employers to directly address the skill shortages which they have identified. A number of companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, KPMG, Morrisons and Tesco, are already sponsoring business-related degrees for students, and four out of five FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff on Open University courses.

Winston Churchill wrote, in his inspiring book My Early Life, that the world “was made to be wooed and won by youth”. We need to embrace this sentiment and ensure that the next generation of the UK’s business leaders is both highly skilled and fully motivated to improve the nation’s economic competitiveness. Government, educators and businesses all have a part to play in preparing them for this task. Let’s do it now, before it is too late.

David Rutley is Conservative MP for Macclesfield. He is currently Damian Green’s parliamentary private secretary and served on the Treasury Select Committee. He spent many years in business as a senior executive in companies such as Asda.