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TV Dragon Gets Apprentices Hired

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INTERVIEW Multi-millionaire entrepreneur Peter Jones tells Liz Lightfoot how he wants to boost business with new-style apprenticeships

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Students come in at 16, often with mediocre GCSE results and lacklustre school reports. After two years they are beating Oxbridge graduates to sought-after jobs in the telecoms industry.

Hard to believe? Not if you are Peter Jones and can lay claim to Europe's first string of tycoon schools. His enterprise academies offer a two-year alternative to A Levels for 16 year olds who want to go into business and post-sixth form courses for would-be entrepreneurs. And now he's launching an apprenticeship scheme for students too.

"A huge telecoms company has switched its recruitment from universities to graduates of a Peter Jones academy," he says. "On its graduate recruitment programme this year they have not been looking to recruit out of the university graduate pool, but from one of our academies. I think that says a lot."

The towering TV Dragon - he is 6'7" and one of the panel of investors in the television show Dragons' Den - started his first business at 16 and now has a range of interests in mobile phones, television, media, leisure and property. His Phones International company has an annual turnover of around £180 million.

Perhaps the telecoms company employing from the academies is one of his? "Not at all, it's Everything Everywhere, the Orange and T-Mobile telecoms network with 50,000 employees," he says. "That's not to say that they will never employ university graduates, but that their first line of attack is to interview our students," he explains.

Four years ago when the academies were approved by the then Labour government, the education world was pretty much against him, claiming that entrepreneurs were born, not taught. "We have proved them wrong," he says. "We have proved that not only can it be done, but we have clearly delivered it. The scepticism that was prevalent in 2008 has strangely gone away in 2012."

The Peter Jones Enterprise Academy is run through a network of existing further education or training colleges and by September there will be approaching 40 branches. Every student establishes a business and has the chance of work experience and mentoring from existing companies and entrepreneurs. They leave with BTEC qualifications in enterprise and entrepreneurship.

"I wanted to provide an alternative to the traditional route of education that was specifically centred on enterprise. I have a vision of society where failure is not feared and success is celebrated," he says. Having launched the academies, he is now pressing for the introduction of GCSEs and A Levels in entrepreneurship.

The young Jones passed the 11 Plus and achieved three A Levels but, by the age of 18, had set up a tennis academy - he is a keen player when he can find the time - and a computer company. By 19, he had an Audi 80 sports car and had bought his own house. University was not for him, though he displays none of the snide anti-intellectualism that marks some other successful entrepreneurs.

He does think that university can be inappropriate for those set on a career in business and is throwing his weight behind the government's new higher-level apprenticeships. He is launching a Peter Jones advanced apprenticeship in enterprise with Churchgate Academy, a training company in Manchester, and from March 2013 the enterprise academy will be piloting a new higher-level apprenticeship in innovation growth. The framework will be made available to smaller companies to encourage them to take on apprentices.

"People are thinking twice about university fees and these apprenticeships are a real option for young people who want to go out and be enterprising," he says. "For too long we seemed to forget about our students. University was just a functional way of life where, if people got the right grades, they would go there for three years to study geology or geography or history, not knowing how it would prepare them, but believing it would give them a greater level of employability. Now, with the new apprenticeships and the work we are doing, young people are getting more options, which is what it is all about."

Businesses too can benefit from the "new ideas and skills" which apprentices bring into the workplace, he says. "That will be very exciting for employers of all sorts and sizes across the different sectors."

Big companies have come out offering practical support for his pilot higher-level apprenticeship in innovation growth. "In the past there has been a lot of lip service given to business engaging with education and now it is real, and happening."

Television programmes such as Dragons' Den and The Apprentice have helped to celebrate entrepreneurship, he says. "I don't think it can be claimed that The Apprentice gives a current view of what business is about, but it gives an entertaining actuality on the fun that you can have," he says. "Lord Sugar has played quite a good part, in a fairly harsh but entertaining way, in encouraging people to actually get off their backsides and do something, rather than just talk about it. It has got people thinking about taking products to market and how they are going to sell them."

This article orginally appeared in a special report on Apprenticeships, produced by Raconteur Media and published with The Times (UK). For further content by Raconteur Media please see our new content site here.