The National Enterprise Academy (NEA) is the brainchild of Peter Jones and right-hand man Eric White. The first batch of students passed through its doors last Monday for a short six-month tester programme. “This isn’t a full school year,” says White. “This is a starter course to shape how we roll out the national academy in September 2009.”
Some 70 students were whittled down from the hundreds of applicants and invited to attend a rigorous two-day interview process, which took place at Jones’ Phones International headquarters in Marlow. Following a series of challenges, team building exercises and face-to-face interviews with Jones, 27 students were eventually selected.
“These kids were given a very stern lecture from Peter at the outset,” says White. “This is not a joke, or a TV stunt, and it won’t be filmed.”
Jones’ is rightfully firm on this point. This is not a platform for wannabe TV stars. This is a genuine attempt to inject entrepreneurialism back into the UK. He says: “There is a stark difference in the entrepreneurial mindset between the UK and the US. Here, there tends to be a ‘can I?’ approach, whereas in the US the ‘I can’ belief is instilled from an early age.
“If the UK economy is to become a world leader in business, we need to create the right learning environment for all our children, where their talents can be developed so they can go out into the workplace or business and prosper.”
And the Dragon is putting his money where his mouth is. The flagship academy will cost Jones some £4m of his personal funds, a sum that PM Gordon Brown has pledged to match.
But can entrepreneurialism really be “taught”? White believes so: “You can definitely teach someone to be an entrepreneur. There’s going to be a scale. From the textbook entrepreneur – the “unemployable” people who don’t want a job and go on to change the world – to independent, focused individuals who fit well into an employment environment.
“It would be brilliant if we get some of the first, but this is also about instilling an entrepreneurial spark.”
Jones has recruited a “champions league” of entrepreneurs to assist with teaching at the academy, from one-man bands to firms employing 10,000 staff. “These are ‘been there, done that’ people,” says White. “This isn’t about presenting theory. And Peter has a contacts book to die for.”
The academy is open to 16-19 year-olds, and is not subject to academic qualifications. In fact, White believes the NEA will be an alternative for kids who find school challenging. “The school leaving age is increasing to 18,” he says. “The academy will become a choice for kids as to where they stay in the education system.”
While White stresses that “We don’t want to run schools, we are not teachers”, he and Jones are working with the examining body Edexcel to create NVQ level two and three qualifications in entrepreneurship.
Jones hopes to establish NEAs in nine regions of England and then into Scotland and Wales, with 12,000 students through the doors by 2012.
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