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Financial Times: Entrepreneurs criticise leaving age plans

EXTRACT: Young entrepreneurs have always attracted public interest. Alex Tew succeeded in selling $1m (£500,000) in advertising on his Million Dollar Homepage website. James Murray-Wells, Shell Livewire Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005, created the more durable glassesdirect.co.uk, which sells spectacles online.

THE ARTICLE

By Jonathan Guthrie, Enterprise Editor
Published: May 17 2007 03:00 | Last updated: May 17 2007 03:00

Andrew Hildreth, a leading young entrepreneur, has condemned government plans to keep children in school or training until 18. His comments were echoed by other young entrepreneurs, who said the policy risked stifling youth enterprise, which the government has previously tried to foster.

The CBI employers’ organisation named Mr Hildreth, 22, as Young Entrepreneur of the Year last December, based on the potential of his business, Crisp Thinking, whose software detects online grooming by paedophiles. He said the plan to raise the school leaving age was “another nail in the coffin for entrepreneurship in Britain”. The businessman, who left school at 16, said: “The system should offer flexibility for young people who want to set up businesses.”

Mr Hildreth, who founded an internet marketing agency when he was 14, said formal education could stifle originality in young people. “Education teaches you how to do things the way they have always been done, instead of in new ways,” he said. Three of the UK’s best-known entrepreneurs, Sir Richard Branson, Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Philip Green, all left school by 17.

Graham Mulholland, 33, described the plans from the Department for Education as “baloney”. He left school at 16 to sweep factory floors, but his EPM composite materials business, which he set up in his twenties, now turns over £5m a year and supplies Formula One.

The government hopes that extending education for youngsters will help to raise low UK productivity, and launched a consultation on the subject earlier this week. Its goals include tertiary education for half of school leavers. It has also funded a series of initiatives to encourage enterprise among the young. Mr Mulholland said: “It’s cock and bull to make everyone go to university, then tell them afterwards they should become entrepreneurs.”

Andrew Butt, 24, whose Enable software company has annual sales of £2.5m, said: “I left school at 15 and have never looked back.” Mr Butt complied with educational laws by hiring a personal tutor using the profits from the company, which he set up when he was 14. He said: “I can see the government’s point of view. But I am not convinced raising the school leaving age is appropriate from the perspective of personal freedom.”

Young entrepreneurs have always attracted public interest. Alex Tew succeeded in selling $1m (£500,000) in advertising on his Million Dollar Homepage website. James Murray-Wells, Shell Livewire Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005, created the more durable glassesdirect.co.uk, which sells spectacles online.

But youth enterprise does not always live up to the hype. Teenager Martin Halstead received wide coverage with plans to operate an air service between Edinburgh and the Isle of Man. The business quickly failed. Mr Halstead was last heard of working in a music shop. James Harries, meanwhile, gained fame in the 1980s as a pre-teen antiques dealer, before the business collapsed. He later underwent sex reassignment surgery and now appears on reality television shows.

Class acts

Sir Richard Branson abandoned his education at 16 to produce a magazine called The Student. He was a serial entrepreneur by the time real students of his age were graduating

Sir Alan Sugar has two university degrees – of the honorary kind. At 16 he owned a van and stock worth £100. He has increased the value of those assets 8m times.

Sir Philip Green the high-street tycoon sponsors a retail “academy”, but left school himself at 15 to work for a shoe importer. He paid his wife a £1.2bn dividend in 2005

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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