Social enterprise winners got the hang of business

Social enterprise winners got the hang of business
By Douglas Blane, TES Connect

The Social Enterprise Academy’s annual school awards celebrated the best in entrepreneurialism, from fairtrade tuck shops to recycled – and resold – school uniforms

When Jay Lamb was only seven he thought he was in serious trouble at school, he tells the audience of pupils and teachers at this year’s Social Enterprise Awards. “I was the second smallest kid in my class and my teacher was austere and frightening.

“I used to like bending paperclips into little specs, and me and my mates at our table would sit with them on, then whip them away when the teacher came near. But one day a terrible thing happened. We got distracted and she caught us.

“‘Who is responsible for this?’ she wanted to know, and my friends’ eyes turned to me. I was sure I was in for it. ‘I have only one thing to say to you,’ she said in her stern voice: ‘Where are mine?’”

Young Jay was led out to the teacher’s desk where she gave him a large paper-clip that he made into little specs for her, he says.

“She wore them for the rest of the day. They must have been very uncomfortable. But she wanted to recognise something creative in me. That is what your teachers have been doing with all of you,” says Jay, now an associate tutor with the Social Enterprise Academy.

The academy’s annual awards to schools, held at Oran Mor in Glasgow, likewise recognise creativity, innovation and enterprise. Twenty-one schools qualified this year, just a fraction of Scotland’s total. But the numbers are growing, and the national significance of school social enterprises is signalled by the presence of one of the busiest men in the Scottish Government.

John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, stays for the full two hours, presenting awards, posing for photographs with youngsters and chatting to them about their achievements. Immediately after the recent election, he says, he got a letter from the Social Enterprise Academy asking him to come today.

“I thought no matter how difficult the other bits of my job are, this is a great thing to support. I did it last year and was full of admiration for the creativity and inventiveness I saw in the schools.”

During the presentations, Mr Swinney looks as if he enjoys talking to the children. “I’ve got three of my own,” he says afterwards. “Two who talk back and one who doesn’t yet, because he’s only seven months old. It’s good to hear from pupils of all ages just what they’ve been doing. I think they show remarkable talent and entrepreneurism.”

“He asked me how many uniforms we washed,” says Kieran Robertson, a P7 pupil at Our Lady of Peace Primary in Paisley – whose Ecoforms enterprise takes school uniforms kids have grown out of and sells them at low cost to other parents. “I told him we wash 20-30 a week.

“Then I said that lots of people know about us now and are bringing uniforms and leaving them in the white bins we put around the school. I really liked getting the award today – it made me feel proud.”

Shops and cafes feature strongly among the award winners. “We run a fairtrade tuck shop,” says Francesca Roberts (P7) from Westerton Primary. “The profits go to our link with Malawi. Fairtrade costs a wee bit more but it’s not too expensive. We had lots of ideas, then we took a vote to decide what kind of enterprise to do.”

“We send equipment for their school to Malawi and write letters to them,” says Kelci Drysdale (P7). “Sometimes we draw pictures of ourselves. They send us rice, pottery and stuff to sell in the shop. It works well.”

More unusual enterprises have been set up in some schools. At Auchenlodment Primary in Johnstone, pupils of all ages have been taking a fresh look at local woodland. First they cleared 140 black bags of rubbish, then they began running themed walks for the community. Profits are reinvested and put towards the purchase of a solar-powered generator.

Armadale Primary pupils have been out and about in their West Lothian community, interviewing older people, gathering their memories, and capturing them in a history book. This has proved so popular that two books a year are now planned, with profits going to charities for the elderly.

Kirkintilloch High kept locals warm through the long East Dunbartonshire winter with “Super Scarves” that they make from recycled materials. Market research at Crosshouse Primary in South Lanarkshire showed that stationery would sell. So they set up a shop using ethical suppliers, with profits providing small business loans to people in the developing world.

Concerts and bingo for the elderly feature at Quarter Primary, South Lanarkshire, whose pupils have formed an events management company. They also grow and sell vegetables, with profits funding the renovation of the village playpark.

Kirkcudbright Academy senior pupils are recycling cycles. “We get old bikes and parts of bikes, put them together, do them up and sell them,” says Allan Maxwell (S6). “It’s not that difficult, though it can be hard to get parts. There are a lot of different bikes around now. I like it because it’s practical. You’re not just sitting writing.”

Unusually, this is a social enterprise that is part of the curriculum, says Frank Dorrans, principal teacher of pupil support. “It’s one unit in our enterprise and employability course for S4-6. Some of them work on the bikes, while others do finance and marketing. We got the idea from an article in TESS.

“The more people hear about it, the more popular it’s becoming. We can hardly keep up with demand. Not everyone wants to spend £100 on a new bike. They can get one from us for £20. They might not be pretty but they do the job.”

Getting the job done is a key characteristic of all entrepreneurs, says Neil McLean, director of the Social Enterprise Academy. “It’s something I researched for my masters degree. The personality traits of entrepreneurs are very similar, whether they’re running a social or a commercial enterprise. Achievement is usually the main motivation, not making money. That’s just a measure of success.”

The academy itself is a social enterprise, he says. “We provide guidance to teachers and help to train them. We link them up with social entrepreneurs so they can make the move from straightforward fundraising to entrepreneurial activities. That develops wider skills in pupils. It’s about the whole culture of enterprise. They start to believe they can set up their own enterprise if they want to.”

The academy’s training and support for teachers were highly praised in an HMIE report this month, as was its action learning approach.

Social enterprise is not yet a familiar idea, in society or in schools, says Mr McLean. “Entrepreneurs often don’t know what a social enterprise is at the start of their careers. But once they’ve made their money, many of them look to give it away. We want to work with young people to get the idea of a social enterprise out there and show how rewarding it can be. We aim to have a social enterprise in every school in Scotland within five years.”

The whole idea of people working together for the common good has been an integral part of Scottish thinking for centuries, says John Swinney. “I see the work of the Social Enterprise Academy very much in that tradition. There is a big place for the concept of a social enterprise in our economic model of society. The more we can encourage it in schools the better.”


Jay Lamb, associate tutor at the Social Enterprise Academy, couldn’t even spell “business” when he set up his first social enterprise, he says.

“It’s true. I spelt it wrong on my business plan when I had the idea for Re-Union Canals. That was a bit of a low point. I didn’t know anything about business. I couldn’t even spell it.”

But being an entrepreneur is about identifying what you want to achieve and why, he says. “It’s not true that entrepreneurs are born that way. Business skills can be learnt. I was living on a canal boat and I realised that lots of people never get the chance to go on a canal. It was about people being left out. That was my motivation. I hate that.

“You also need perseverance. We got so many knock-backs. The main thing we had was dogged determination to keep on going.”

As the idea of social enterprise becomes better known, many more are likely to be launched, he believes.

“Not just in schools but generally. Personally I’d like to change the whole business landscape, so we have social enterprises everywhere. When you set one up, you decide at the start that you’re doing it not for personal gain but for social benefit – just as someone chooses to be a nurse or a teacher.”

Working with schools through the Social Enterprise Academy began in a small way, he says.

“It was a diversion from my main activity of engaging with adult social entrepreneurs. I agreed to do a couple of school visits with no real excitement. But the stuff we’ve seen in schools has been just phenomenal.

“So that is where most of my energy will go in future. The academy is a social enterprise, but working with schools is currently funded by the Scottish Government.

“We don’t want lots of vibrant activity in schools, then a change of administration and it all stops. So we need to generate as much of our income as possible, without asking schools to pay. That’s the challenge.”

He does not have a solution, he says. Not yet. “But when we set up Re- Union Canal Boats we needed to get a £60,000 boat. It sounded impossible. Well, we did it. It was complicated but we managed to get one for free. As long as you are clear what the challenge is, you can find a way. That’s the entrepreneurial mindset.”


School social enterprises should meet the following criteria to be considered for an award from the Social Enterprise Academy:

profits used to address a social issue
clear trading activity
completed business plan
school-wide awareness
ongoing regular activity

For guidance and training, telephone 0131 243 2670 or email