Why Ireland Needs an Entrepreneurship Education Policy

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A new report has been published by the EU called ‘Entrepreneurship Education at School in Europe National Strategies, Curricula and Learning Outcomes’. The report finds that in Ireland “There is no specific national strategy for entrepreneurship education in general education”. This hardly comes as news to anyone involved in education in this country, and particularly to the many people who have attempted to persuade governments of all hues about the benefits of having an integrated entrepreneurship education strategy.

For much of the past decade the European Commission has held the view that entrepreneurship must be embedded into the education system and that it should be available to all primary, secondary and third-level students. Furthermore, the Commission has advocated that two sets of complementary actions should be incorporated into entrepreneurship education. The first should aim at developing attitudes and behaviours, particularly traits such as personal responsibility, creativity, leadership, problem solving, and being proactive. The second set of actions should focus on the technical and managerial competences required to start and run an organisation.

The publication of the Lisbon Agenda in 2000 advocated economic growth and employment as the priorities for the European Union. The European Commission recognised that to truly embed entrepreneurial behaviour across its Member States, it needed to ensure that entrepreneurship education was made available to all students at all levels across all countries. Towards this ambition it has published a series of thoughtful reports and recommendations for Member States to act upon. Indeed the 2006 EU Conference on “Entrepreneurship Education in Europe: Fostering Entrepreneurial Mindsets through Education and Learning” detailed a wide range of possible actions that could be taken by different stakeholders, with the development of entrepreneurship education strategy being at the heart of any set of initiatives. Unfortunately the Irish response thusfar to this call to action has not been proactive.

A number of countries similar in size and peripheral geographic location have already recognised the benefits of an entrepreneurship education strategy and have implemented policies to ensure that all students receive some form of entrepreneurship education during their formal schooling years. In Finland entrepreneurship education is a thematic entity, not a subject. In 2004 the Finnish Ministry of Education produced an Action Plan for Entrepreneurship Education that covered all levels of the education system, and working together with the Ministry of Trade and Industry appointed a working group entitled ‘From Higher Education Institutes to Entrepreneur’. The Ministry of Education also appointed an Entrepreneurship steering group to ensure that the agreed programme of action was properly implemented.

In Norway entrepreneurship is included in the curricula at all levels, and three government departments are involved in its delivery (Ministry of Education and Research, Ministry of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development). In addition to co-operation between ministries and directorates, there are also partnership agreements with businesses as part of the action plan. The primary goals of the Norwegian strategy are to develop knowledge and competences in students related to entrepreneurial activities, strengthen young people’s belief in and capabilities of their own creative forces, and foster a culture for entrepreneurship.

Closer to home, our Celtic cousins in Scotland launched a policy called ‘Investing in Scotland’s Future: Creating a Culture of Enterprise in Our Schools’ which details the actions that will be taken by the Scottish government to embed entrepreneurship into the national schooling system. As part of its action plan, it contains a section entitled ‘What success will look like’ which highlights how the programme will be measured. Obviously, the more important indicators cannot occur in the early years of the programme but it demonstrates a political commitment to long-term planning and the future development of the country.

While these countries have clear strategies in terms of entrepreneurship education, Ireland possesses a wide variety of separate initiatives taking place across secondary and third levels of Irish education. The initiatives are highly fragmented, are lacking a clear sense of overall purpose and direction, and are not meeting the needs of the country. There is therefore an urgent need for a coherent entrepreneurship education strategy that is integrated across all three levels and across government departments, a strategy that will provide entrepreneurship education to a wider number of students throughout the education system, particularly to non-business students.

The need to develop a coherent entrepreneurship education strategy is not new to Ireland. The Goodbody Report in 2002 stated that the school system does not support the idea of working for oneself and that the Irish education system was seen by entrepreneurs to have played a very limited role in supporting entrepreneurship to date. Since then there have been a succession of Irish publications such as the Enterprise Strategy Group report, the Small Business Forum report, various GEM reports and the 2007 ‘Towards Developing an Entrepreneurship Policy for Ireland’ report that have successively argued for the development of entrepreneurship education across all levels of the Irish education system as a sustainable source of locally grown entrepreneurs. To date there has been no entrepreneurship education strategy developed, nor indeed has there been any ‘entrepreneurship policy’ published!

Entrepreneurship is not just about starting your own business, it is about a way of thinking and behaving that can be applied in many different contexts. People starting up charities or organising charity events are behaving entrepreneurially, while people in sports and social clubs across the country behave entrepreneurially on a weekly basis as they struggle to gather resources together through church gate collections and other fundraising events to keep their club afloat or to build new facilities that their members can use. Furthermore, we live in a time when we urgently need our public sector employees to behave entrepreneurially as government funding is being pruned across government departments to take account of the economic challenges that the country faces.

There is a growing body of international evidence which demonstrates that students who receive entrepreneurship education as part of their schooling show improved academic performance, school attendance, and educational attainment, have increased problem-solving and decision-making abilities, have improved interpersonal relationships, teamwork, money management, and public speaking skills, are more likely to find employment, and have enhanced social psychological development (self-esteem, ego development, self-efficacy) . The reason that students achieve these benefits is because the primary goal of entrepreneurship education is not to get everyone to start their own business but to give our young people the ability to think positively, to look for opportunities to make things happen, to have the self-confidence to achieve their goals, and to use their talents to build a better society (economically and socially). It also recognises that students of all academic abilities can be part of this process and that success is not dependent upon the number of points that one gets in the Leaving Cert but on how one lives their life.

Unfortunately the Irish education system is primarily left brain orientated (particularly for business students) and arguably there is a general need to re-imagine the whole education curricula. However, by giving the education system a clear vision and strategy for entrepreneurship education, much can still be achieved without the need for substantial funding. It should be noted that any entrepreneurship education strategy would require teachers to understand business and be trained in its different approaches, a proposition that may not find favour with everyone concerned. Undoubtedly there will be resistance from many quarters to such an initiative as introducing any new syllabii or culture can be a difficult and lengthy process. However, because it is challenging does not mean it cannot be achieved!

Entrep. Education Europa

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About the Author:

Professor Thomas M. Cooney (B.Comm, MBA, PhD, MMII, MCIM, FIMCA)
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