Opinion Leaders Education and Enterprise

Back in the 1950s, New Zealand ranked about number three in the world for relative living standards. That might be dull bit of terminology but its importance lies in the fact that the higher your living standards, the higher your ability to have better systems of health and education.
Since then, we’ve slipped badly down the rankings.
There are several reasons for this but I believe the main contributor to our static standard of living is the weakness in our education system.
In particular, there is insufficient emphasis in the state-dominated education system on the whole concept of enterprise, and entrepreneurship.
The system may be competent at inculcating sensitivity to the environment, aspects of social awareness and so on. But these things will not of themselves create the wealth necessary to maintain competitively attractive society in corner of the globe as remote as New Zealand. And so our brightest and best will tend to drift away.

System weaknesses
How to address education system weaknesses? Steps to improve numeracy and literacy are long overdue. Too many people are going on to tertiary education with inadequate ability to do sums or read coherently. That is just crazy.
Even more important is the vital need for schools to teach students about the role of business, the creation of wealth, and why profits are fundamental requirement in modern progressive economy.
Business is everywhere in our daily lives. If you don’t own one, you work for one; even buying petrol or the daily groceries involves “doing business”. These manifestations of business and the wealth they collectively generate are the life-blood of the society in which we live.
Illogically, though, we do not make any formal effort to teach our young people what all this means. There is almost bias in the system against the commercial sector, and tendency to build in the minds of many young people vague distaste for it.

A business education model
For couple of years now I have been trustee of an organisation called the Enterprise New Zealand Trust (ENZT). Founded nearly 20 years ago, it runs various programmes in primary and secondary schools designed to teach students how business works.
It is incredible to see children as young as six pick up the elements of trading, blend these with societal governance experiences, and use the impact to positively modify behaviour, and significantly improve numeracy and literacy.
Benefits for senior students are not confined to hands-on commercial experience. It enhances their ability to:
* make choices;
* evaluate real-life outcomes;
* think logically and fast;
* consider the needs of others; and
* build self-confidence in team environment.
I suggest that these should be key objectives of sound education system.
While the number enrolled in the programmes (around 35,000) is not sufficient to alter the current paradigm, the Trust has proved beyond doubt that you can teach youngsters about enterprise, and they like it.
They’re also good at it. One of the ENZT’s programmes – the Young Enterprise Scheme – involves organising voluntary groups of students into corporate structures, which replicate real business life. This is done at the start of the school year, and the teams then have the year ahead in which to dream up money-making venture, and make it work.
Two Dunedin schools hit on the idea of selling advertising space on playing cards, based on Dunedin tourist attractions. They then sold the flipside of the card to the Dunedin City Council to promote its “I am Dunedin” marketing brand.
The idea took off. When I looked at their accounts, they had $20,000 in the bank, and were grizzling about their tax liability.

The competitive aspect
The inter-school competitive aspect of this particular programme has now been internationalised and New Zealand has won the first two competitions. We are not short of entrepreneurial talent – it simply needs guidance and encouragement.
Our political masters may have paid lip service to improving our relative standard of living with initiatives like the Knowledge Wave Conference but staring them in the face is formula which can really make difference.
So why is there not willingness to endorse and action an Enterprise programme in all our schools?
I think it gets down to ideology defeating common sense, and the only way to defeat that problem is for our leading business structures to force the issue with focused campaign of persuasion. M

Peter Shirtcliffe is retired company director and member of the Business Roundtable.

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