Each week, Northern Startups shines a light on some of the startup innovation happening around the region. To put your startup forward for consideration, contact david@prolificnorth.co.uk

sibStartup: Stepping into Business

What is it? Social enterprise teaching business skills to primary school children

Founder: Donna Irving and Dylan McCarthy

Based: North West

Founded: 2013

The digital skills shortage is a growing issue, not least here in the North. According to research from O2, the UK will need the skills of 2.3 million digital workers by 2020 if it hopes to power the promised digital economy.

That means a total of 766,000 digital jobs will need to be created over the next five years – and currently only 8% of these are predicted to surface in the North.

And while there are initiatives such as Tech North and the Let’s Work Together campaign in the North East that are aimed at addressing the problem, there remain legitimate concerns about the extent to which schools are equipped to effectively lay the foundations at the earliest stage.

Dinah Turner, director of Stepping into Business

Dinah Turner, director of Stepping into Business

One organisation attempting to do something about that is Stepping into Business, a not-for-profit social enterprise based in the North West. It was founded two years ago when chartered accountant Donna Irving and teacher Dylan McCarthy joined forces to try and introduce more real-life business into McCarthy’s classroom, at a primary school in Cheshire. The resulting course was a huge success, with products raising £6,000 for charity.

It has since rolled out to a network of 20 schools across the North West, and is targeting 100 this year. It works by matching schools with businesses, who will sponsor a bespoke programme for each school that can encompass everything from one-day workshops to embedded school programmes lasting several weeks. There are also professional development programmes for the teachers themselves.

“We hear all the time about what great GCSEs and A Levels our schoolchildren are getting,” says Dinah Turner, who joined the organisation as a director last year. “But when they come out of the education pipeline, employers are still saying there is a shortage of skills.

“Our programmes are not about spoon-fed learning designed to pass exams; they’re about broadening education into real-life skills. Often kids really come alive with what we do – they may be noisy in class but they really excel at something else, such as selling.”

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All aspects of business are covered, but learning is often structured around areas such as problem-solving, resilience, confidence and creativity, often using games. The aim is to embed the “building blocks” of business acumen at primary level that can then be developed further at secondary.

Funded predominantly through the businesses it partners with, Stepping Into Business has recently won “significant” funding from Innovate UK to develop the programme virtually. To that end, it’s currently working with Manchester agency Stardotstar on an app intended to transfer its classroom-based programmes online. It will, according to Turner, be “very scalable, commercial and exciting – the kids must want to use it”.

Turner is now appealing for more involvement from Northern schools. “Kids should be excited by the future of technology,” she says, “but places like MediaCityUK are just emerald cities for them. They should see a direct footpath, and by engaging with them at this level they can be inspired.”