Why the Ox-Bow Lake is harming British business

Dan, my eldest son, is eight. “It’s a waste of time,” he said to me when I pointed out that he’d be going back to school in two day’s time.

“Why?” I said.

“What they teach,” he said. “It’s stupid.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, did you ever need to know about a lake that was shaped like a horseshoe?”

“An Ox-Bow Lake, you mean?” (Guess who won the Geography prize?)

“Whatever,” Dan said.

And I suppose he had a point. I can’t say that any of my success in business has hinged on knowing about a crescent or horseshoe shaped body of water formed when a wide meander from the main stem of a river is cut off to create a lake.

Or the Treaty of Worms come to that.

Or that the common name for sodium bicarbonate was baking soda. And suddenly I was questioning everything I’d learned at school. Was the whole point of school just to load me up with enough useless exam passes that I’d eventually end up at Leeds University doing a Masters in Business Administration? Finally studying something that mattered?

I stopped worrying, opened a beer and picked up my book. I’m reading Chris Evans’ Memoirs of a Fruitcake. It’s an up and down ride for Chris after the successes chronicled in his first book, but like many business books written by successful people, it’s easy to detect a theme. ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it.’

Can you teach someone to be an entrepreneur?

Is that right? Can anyone go from being a Tarzan-o-gram in Warrington to the highest paid performer on British radio? And if that’s the case, why is my son wasting his time learning about Ox Bow Lakes when he could be learning entrepreneurship and guaranteeing that the country’s not in recession twenty years from now?

Because I don’t think that entrepreneurship can be taught. One of my earliest blogs was about the mind of the self made millionaire, and I stand by what I said then. There’s just something different about the man or woman who goes from railway arch to Rolls Royce. There’s an indefinable quality – or drive, or focus, call it what you will – that I don’t think can be taught. It’s either there or it’s not there – much as you can give someone all the singing lessons in the world and they’ll never make it past the chorus. Then Jose Carreras wanders onto the stage and you know something is different…

Schools are out of touch

So does this mean I think schools should stick with the Ox Bow Lake and Dan should simply knuckle down and keep quiet? No, absolutely not. I’ve just read a report which suggests that at least 75% of today’s ten year olds will do jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Come to think of it, not many of my classmates told the careers master they wanted to be search engine analysts or social media specialists.

I have to admit to being slightly depressed when I talk to teachers (at all levels) and realise just how little they know about business and how they simply don’t anticipate the technological changes that are coming. I’m emphatically in favour of schools and colleges having ever closer links with local companies.

In fact, let me make a plea. If you ever get the chance to go into a school and talk to the kids, grab it with both hands. Go in there and put the case for business, because in my experience most schools aren’t doing it. Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be invited back – especially when you tell the Geography master that Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are far more important than his beloved Ox Bow Lake…



  1. Mark · January 14, 2011

    Of course, if Dan ends up as a mining engineer or geologist Ox-Bow lakes might be relevant…

  2. Neil Huntington · January 14, 2011

    As a geography student I have enjoyed learning about Oxbow Lakes in the past, partly because of a general thirst for knowledge. I think that practising to learn any subject matter whilst at school can help all future learning.

    I think that being an entrepreneur can be taught, I think anything can.

    There are interesting studies, particularly http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliers_(book) on the subject of talent and experience.

  3. Julian Smith · January 14, 2011

    Hi Ed
    What a wonderfully written blog this week! Not to say the others arent though of course :-). You hit a nerve with me for sure. The skills of entrepreneurship and a ‘go get’ attitude cant be taught, but many children have these skills that school simply does not awaken in them. Innate skills not capitalised on, is a crying shame. I mentor kids at one of my local universities to prepare them for the big wide world. I am also pushing to be included on the school rosta to go do a seminar for the kids on the business studies GCSE and AS and A Level courses.

  4. Rich Cadden · January 15, 2011

    Is Dan learning that he can learn? Developing confidence in his own learning ability to grasp concepts.
    Sure thats great for all the ‘left-brain’ thinkers out there. I think one of the major aspects lacking in western education is that ‘right-brain’ thinkers (creative thinking) is being left behind.
    I think one of the things that makes Britain Great is that we have some fantastically creative people, such as John Baird, George Stevenson, Isingbard Kingdom Brunnel and more recently James Dyson. We need to keep hold of this great creativity…..

    This reminds me of my nephews latest nativity play…..the three wise men came in in the wrong order. The first wise men says “I have brought you some Gold!”. The second wise man said “I have brought you some Mehr”. The Third wise man said “Here is something that Frank sent!!!!”
    I thought it was brilliant. This young kid was brave enough to take a chance and have a go and isnt that what being an entrepreur is all about?

  5. Tom Morton · January 16, 2011

    Crikey, Ed, how long have you got?

    1) It’s in society’s interest to have as many of its citizens as possible with a shared core of common knowledge

    2) The view that all learning/teaching should be specifically tailored to “getting a job” is becoming dangerously fashionable (which is not to say that vocational training isn’t shamefully underfunded)

    3) In an increasingly changing world there’s going to be a greater and greater premium on flexibility of mind — I agree with Neil that training the mind to learn is the key

    4) The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has always been a key driver of civilisation — and even topics with no apparent relevance often turn out to have surprising and unforeseen applications

    5) I agree, however, that a sound grounding in how a business works should be part of the core knowledge taught in schools

    Great blog as always!

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