Michael Mercieca is chief executive of Young Enterprise

A climate change game that involves players acting out the effects of a hurricane, a pen that doubles as a stylish perfume atomizer and an iced tea drink made from the essence of the baobab tree.

All of these are prize-winning products dreamed up, manufactured and sold by teenage entrepreneurs in the course of a single year as part of the Company Programme run by the Young Enterprise charity.

Hands-on, exhausting and even at times a bit scary, the Company Programme last year gave 26,000 young people aged between 15 and 19 the chance to set up and run a real company advised by a volunteer from business.

They do everything from raising the initial share capital through to designing and making their product or service to selling directly to customers at specially organised trade fairs and ultimately winding up the firm and paying their taxes.

This renowned programme has been running since 1962 and in that time a million young people have taken part. Independent research shows it helps develop key skills that help young people land a job and become business people.

Many alumni of the Company Programme have gone on to outstanding careers as entrepreneurs such as Nick Ogden who created the WorldPay system we use to settle our bills online, corporate executives like Amina Bryant, Head of Brand Partnerships at Warner Music and public figures such as the Rt. Hon. David Lammy MP, Labour’s former Higher Education Minister who spent nine years on the front bench.

Employers tend to look favourably on students who have taken part in the programme. Anthony Impey, founder of IT consultants Optimity, said: “When I’m looking at recruiting people I place more emphasis on things like Young Enterprise than A Levels.”

The academic world also recognises the value of the scheme. Students taking part in Company Programme can get a qualification from the OCR examining board worth up to 40 UCAS points that count towards entry into university. This is valuable when, for example, to study Civil Engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University you need 200 UCAS points.

So what difference does getting schools involved in enterprise actually make to the economy? A Kingston University Business School investigation in 2012 conducted extensive surveys, interviews and focus groups with 371 Young Enterprise alumni. The results were compared to a control group of people who did not do the programme.

It found Young Enterprise alumni are twice as likely to run their own business later in life:  42% of alumni surveyed started firms compared to 26% in the control group of non-alumni. Separate research by the FreshMinds agency in 2008 found that, by the age of 30, Young Enterprise alumni earn a third more than their peers.

Young Enterprise is funded overwhelmingly by corporate and private donations. A huge network of 3,500 national and local supporters ranging from HSBC, GKN, Santander and Cadbury support the organization by allowing staff time off to volunteer as mentors either as individuals or in teams, by sponsoring awards, offering cash, in kind and pro bono support and by joining our advisory and trustee boards.

Schools and colleges normally fund the scheme in the following way: Young Enterprise sends heads who express an interest  in a service level agreement quoting the full cost of the Company Programme, £1,250 per team of between six and 25 pupils. However the document will also explain that the cost to them will be reduced thanks to national funding from, for example, HSBC, and any contribution there might be from a local company or local authority. Typically the actual bill to a school or college is around £500 per team.

Many schools approach local firms and their council for help with this charge. However, Education Secretary Michael Gove has increasingly made it clear heads have the discretion to dip into pots of funding given to the school.

“Link” teachers have been absolutely crucial to the Company Programme’s success. The Link Teacher acts as the facilitator and communicator drawing together all the people involved in the running of a Young Enterprise company. This includes the students, business advisers, senior volunteers on the Young Enterprise area board, local staff members, the charity’s national headquarters, members of the school’s board and other staff from the school or college, parents, the media and local business people.

Deutsche Bank’s Rupert Yeoward from Deutsche Asset and Wealth Management explained why his firm is so firmly committed to funding Young Enterprise at a regional final in Liverpool. He said: “We’ve seen here today five very, very passionate and enthusiastic teams who’ve set up their own businesses. And let’s hope this leads on to success in their own lives.”

Phil Smith, the chief executive of technology firm Cisco Systems UK and Ireland, said the Company Programme helped young people develop innovation and other skills vital for the future of the UK. He says: “It is crucial that young people get exposure to environments that allow their entrepreneurial skills to flourish if we are going to generate the innovation the UK will need to lead in the future. Young Enterprise programs play a vital part in providing that environment.”

Michael Mercieca is chief executive of Young Enterprise, the national education charity founded in 1963 to forge links between schools and industry.

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