People understand what you’re talking about if you mention ‘The American Dream’ – the idea of grabbing yourself by the bootstraps and taking whatever part of the world you want to take hold of and making it yours. Soaring wealth and opportunity are the promise, indeed the birthright of our continental cousins. But talk about The British Dream and it conjures up a dreary image of watching sky sports with an egg bap and rain pelting the windows.
There’s lots of terrible things about America, not least a voting record in the last year that made Brexit look like a mere faux pas. The national obsession with the ‘right’ for homeowners to tote heavy artillery, the absence of the letter u in colour, the mullet. That being said, there’s a lot they do very well and amongst them is the vaulting ambition alluded to above. The cost of university over there has long been derided as ridiculous, punitive and padded but as we’re now on par with them it might behove us to look at what those rising costs have ensured students are taught from a much earlier age.
I was giving a talk yesterday about how ambitious students in the States start the preparation for their Higher Education from the age of 13 onwards, getting involved in internships, work experience, volunteering work in areas that are beginning to emerge as possible degree and career routes. They know and understand that if they are about to assume that level of debt they need to ensure that the cost/benefit equation is in their favour, so they do everything possible to assemble the greatest set of experiences to convince an admissions tutor that they deserve a place in that prestigious college more than the person to their left. In our blinkered view of careers advice in this country, little consideration is given to linking the academic and the careers side of things. Schools promote higher ed as the best and possibly the only route worth taking to pacify a political class that is so obsessed with social mobility they are keen to frogmarch everyone down the same route regardless of whether it makes sense for everyone. In amongst all of that we are massively ignoring an entire cohort of children, those who have their eye on a career without necessarily thinking of education as being the way to access it, but nor is an apprenticeship or a traineeship featuring in their thinking. These are our captains of industry of tomorrow, daring, brave, sometimes reckless free thinkers who exhibit the kind of unsaddled exuberance of our American counterparts around the time of the Gold Rush. From the age of 5, we tell them they can be anything they want, until they want to be stuff and then we tell them to go to uni and study Geography.
Anything non-standard, anything that doesn’t conform to an easy box tick is sidelined but we are kicking the entrepreneurial spirit out of our kids by not acknowledging its validity. Apparently children as young as seven are earning extra money on the side either by chores, cleaning cars, selling old toys on e-bay, mowing lawns or as one student in Walthamstow did, setting up a tuck shop in his school toilets, franchising it across 3 schools, hiring 11 employees and netting £50,000 a year. Now, rather than applaud his enterprise and give him the tools to further develop his business model he was shut down. Nearly a third of British children have stated they’d like to own their own businesses in the future, but enterprise is not widely taught, encouraged or valued in the current system and students are shepherded ever more towards the known routes. How many Alan Sugars, Elon Musks and James Dysons are we discouraging from thinking more expansively than the narrow parameters of university? Yes it’s a risk to allow students to rudderlessly pursue business ventures but if we give them the tools – to show them how to manage time, their cashflow, deal with suppliers, negotiate, how to run a business, who knows what they may accomplish?
So here it is, we need to reframe The British Dream to mean something, to actually be used in 50 years’ time as casually as ‘good morning’, a phrase so indelibly woven into the fabric of British society that when students say they want to strike out on their own they are celebrated, not stifled by cautionary tales.