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‘My company is now on the Leaving Cert business studies curriculum – a subject I was told I would fail’

Brian Lee says school doesn’t teach the life skills that everyone needs


Ambition: Brian Lee is the founder and CEO of the Freshly Chopped healthy fast food retailer

Ambition: Brian Lee is the founder and CEO of the Freshly Chopped healthy fast food retailer

Brian Lee – Founder and CEO of Freshly Chopped

Brian Lee – Founder and CEO of Freshly Chopped


Ambition: Brian Lee is the founder and CEO of the Freshly Chopped healthy fast food retailer

Thousands of students across Ireland sat this year’s Leaving Certificate business paper this week. The curriculum is supposed to give the next generation the foundations for a wide range of careers in business, marketing, law, enterprise  and management.

But for me, and many other entrepreneurs I know, the Leaving focuses on creating good employees but not good entrepreneurs. The fixation on points and college places has trampled on creativity in all walks of life.

Over the last 15 months, we have seen all kinds of new businesses created whether it’s on social media or food sold from repurposed horseboxes.

It’s been great to see so many new businesses but imagine how many more successful young Irish entrepreneurs and businesses we would have if we taught skills in school to prepare young people for life, not just for college?

When I was 11, I used my savings and bought a lawnmower, printed off business cards and had people calling my Mam asking me to cut their grass.

I turned a profit quicker than expected and caught the business buzz.

I sold phone covers from my school locker to students and even some teachers. I set up market stalls, scouting out areas I thought would have the best footfall.

Despite being well known as an entrepreneur around school by classmates and teachers, I didn’t study b usiness for the Leaving Cert.

I was directed towards home e conomics because I had done it for the Junior Cert and maybe as I was seen as a bit of a messer, not suitable for the world of business as they saw it.

One teacher told me I’d never amount to anything and always be a waster. That’s not something you can easily forget. In fact, my story of setting up the Freshly Chopped chain is now used as a case study for business studies students but I still feel that kids like me wouldn’t even make it into that class.

I didn’t fit in the box. My teachers saw my lack of academic focus and ‘make money’ mentality as a negative. In a way they were right, I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to join a corporation and climb the career ladder.

I wanted to start making money, be my own boss, create new businesses. There wasn’t anything in the curriculum I felt would help me to do that.

School doesn’t teach life skills that everyone needs, like how to save for your future, the reality of mortgages, the danger of credit cards.

It doesn’t open young people’s eyes to the alternatives if books and exams just isn’t for them.

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In the end I didn’t do badly in the Leaving but I knew that an exam paper wouldn’t define me. I saw it as an opportunity to learn discipline, commitment and focus, invaluable in any career.

I’ve mentored a lot of local students in my area and see so much potential wasted because they succumbed to the pressure that is put on young people – to do well in exams, get into a good course or college, find a great job – all by your early 20 s.

There are other ways to build a career. Resilience is the key because if it doesn’t go the way you hoped the first time, it doesn’t mean it never will.

We need to shift education to nurture risk takers.

I managed to learn a lot about being an entrepreneur as I grew up, while having no major responsibilities, but I saw many fellow students who could have been great entrepreneurs struggling or ‘settling’ for a less rewarding job.

Even for people who never want to run their own business, the way we teach business is at odds with what businesses value in a potential employee. Schools focus on aptitude. Businesses look for attitude.

Accenture last year found just 13pc of employers believe graduates are equipped with the relevant ‘soft’ skills, such as teamwork, communication and work ethic.

We have a country that is consistently chosen by huge global corporations for our talented workforce, but our education system doesn’t equip even college kids to be part of that workforce.

Things are even worse for those who aren’t academic or dismissed as ‘wasters’.

Our education system needs to set everyone up to succeed whether they go after a career in a multinational, join the family carpentry business or strike out on their own as an entrepreneur.

My eldest son starts school in September. I have made a promise to him, that by the time he goes on to secondary I will have done everything I can to make sure that how business and entrepreneurship is taught will be better.

So, I’m calling on Government and the Department of Education to support our young people, provide them with a foundation of knowledge that will help them to build a good future for themselves. That means looking again at the Leaving Cert business offering.

In the meantime, even if its not perfect I’d encourage all kids to stay in school and take their exams. My Mam insisted I sit the Leaving and I’ve always been grateful for that.

But remember, Leaving Cert results won’t dictate your future. Do your best. But if it doesn’t go well, there are other routes. Find yours, life isn’t a straight line.

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