Sunday, 29 April 2007

London School for Social Entrepreneurs

• I had an appointment with Alastair Wilson, the Chief Executive of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, which is based in Bethnal Green in the East End of London. I was interested in finding out more about how this school operates ... and from the brochures I picked up at the Skoll Forum, I could see that their approach to learning and enterprise facilitation was very similar to the style of the “Skills of Enterprise” business courses I had set up for unemployed people in New Zealand in the 1980s.

Alastair Wilson, Chief Executive of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, at Bethnal Green, in the East End of London — photo Hutchinson

The Skills of Enterprise business courses were different from mainstream Polytech business courses because of their action learning approach. We didn’t just teach people how to set up a business ... we taught them how to set up their business. Our courses were half work and half study — and there were no certificates or accreditations involved other than having a viable business running at the end of the course, or the participant taking the decision not to go into business because of what they had learned.

I could see that the School for Social Entrepreneurs was following a similar approach to education, which they were also calling “action learning”.

• Each student on the SSE programme is chosen on the basis of their life experience, rather than their qualifications. They are each leading or establishing a new project or organisation, and have shown themselves to be “... driven, committed, persistent, engaged with the community they are aiming to serve, prone to action, and pragmatic”.

The SSE programme is a year long, and the sessions at the School are held one day a week. It’s not a course of instruction ... but more of a learning community where the diverse students are encouraged to help one another with their objectives. The School’s “facilitators” are able to get alongside the students providing information and guidance on a “just in time” basis.

• Gaining access to the networks of existing social entrepreneurs is obviously one of the main benefits cited by the students at this School. The SSE has a huge network of high-profile social entrepreneurs to call upon (from John Bird, founder of The Big Issue newspapers for homeless, to Tim Smit, the man behind The Eden Project). The students are able to interrogate these “expert witnesses” to find out exactly what they did, how they did it, what the results have been and what they have learned.

The School has been operating for ten years and the 250 students so far have become part of a SSE Fellowship Network which plays an active part in the staff team, on the Trustee Board, as expert witnesses, and in helping develop new services. (The Chief Executive Alastair Wilson himself is a former graduate of the School).

• The School for Social Entrepreneurs has recently been evaluated by the New Economics Foundation. Its October 2006 report finds that the SSE has a unique approach based on “the depth and duration of support, the high levels of personal support and the inspirational mixture of people and lasting support networks.”

The report shows that organisations established by SSE Fellows are over one-and-a-half times more likely to be in existence after eight years than conventional businesses. Each social enterprise established by the Fellows has created an average of five jobs (and a small proportion have created more than 20 jobs). The New Economics Foundation has calculated that for every £10,000 its takes to train a student at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the return to the community is £100,000.

• The SSE has now started franchising its methods and approach — with similar Schools for Social Entrepreneurs now operating in Ireland, East and West Midlands, Scotland and Cornwall. And it looks as though they are starting to go international ... with discussions currently taking place for a similar School to be set up in Sydney, Australia.
— The website for the London School for Social Entrepreneurs
“Passion in Action” by Mira Katbamna in The Guardian 12 December 2006