The system should recognise successful college drop-outs

22 Oct 2021, 6:00

Successful outcomes should not just be grade-related, writes Alfie Payne

I loved being in education, so when I had to drop out to focus on growing my business, I was gutted. I’d gone from being an engaged student to college drop-out in just a year.

Now, ten months after dropping out, I’ve got six employees, a client and partner list of 80 brands across four countries, and last month we at Ape Technology hit the mark of earning our first £100k.

This is an achievement I’m proud of – and it’s one I do not feel I could have achieved without the “leg up” of the education system (we don’t yet have investors, so it definitely isn’t that).

I couldn’t have asked for my college experience to have started any better, studying a BTEC in creative media production and getting distinctions in all my course work. I was making great friends and being taught by great lecturers. Then, Covid hit; I need not explain the challenges and changes that brought to student life.

The pandemic exposed what I now recognise to be my entrepreneurial personality: organisations that hadn’t previously needed it, now needed an online presence – and they needed it fast.

So, I started helping them to do this by designing websites and devising marketing plans (using the skills I’d been picking up from college). Then, people started paying me.

Then I had more work than I could handle by myself, so I needed other people to help – and I started paying them. Suddenly, I had a business.

It’s not been an easy ride, and I have to make difficult decisions as MD every week. One of the most difficult to date was last December, when I dropped out of college.

It was a frustrating decision to make: I’d outgrown the system and it appeared unable to accommodate my journey further.

I’d outgrown the system

The system wasn’t recognising my commercial success as educational success – despite the efforts of the likes of our media technician, who did everything to expand my coursework and assignments to stretch and challenge me further. The college itself even introduced clients to Ape.

The education system had been invaluable to me throughout my life, so to have to leave it behind was devastating. 

Success should be measured in many ways, rather than just by your grades. My team and I were having a real-world impact on organisations and generating them revenue, yet because it wasn’t work produced for an assignment brief, it wasn’t recognised.

As MD, I was leading a team, while also dealing with legal, financial and HR matters, but it wasn’t formally acknowledged by the system.

What will have been acknowledged, though, is when I dropped out: I’m a failure, a bad mark, a black spot in the statistics. The student who was getting full marks had suddenly left ̶ that’s not going to look good.

Education helped to realise my goal of having the business, yet it shot itself in the foot because it couldn’t grow with my success. For the system to only be geared towards a set of fixed outcomes for progression is very damaging.

We’re constantly hearing about the cry for synergy between employers and colleges – so why is there not more support for young people who run their own businesses? Surely the system should recognise, and support, self-employment as an outcome?

For me, one area of improvement for FE is teaching students proper commercial awareness. Having an (at least basic) understanding of how a company and business work helps you to understand the impact your work has on a company.

Employers are keen to work with students and colleges on this – but because it’s not marked in an assignment, I fear colleges may not see it as a priority.

It all comes back to the same problem. The system must adapt to widen its scope of “successful outcomes”.

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