On the outskirts of Chippenham is a glass-fronted building where some of the country’s youngest CEOs rub shoulders. Seventeen and 18 year olds chair board meetings, win contracts and pore over business strategies.
But this isn’t a cutting edge tech company staffed by cool entrepreneurs who drive Porsches home to their loft conversions at the end of the day – not yet, anyway; they’re still at school.
James Fox is a man with a plan. Not content with guiding 1,000 pupils through their academic studies at Abbeyfield School in Chippenham – which has been awarded a special Business and Enterprise status by the government – the headteacher wants to instil business acumen into his students too.
That’s why a range of real companies delivering services from web design to sports coaching and catering are run by students as part of their GCSE and A Level courses – to the delight of local business leaders.
And with lessons in Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese and Russian being added to the curriculum this year, with Hindi to follow, bosses engaged in international trade say they’ve finally found a head who talks their language.
From his office window, James can see a field that will soon be a business park, offering 15 units of accommodation to the school-based businesses, and for Chippenham companies looking for new premises.
And some of that site is earmarked as an eco-park, bringing together some of North Wiltshire’s environmentally-friendly businesses in one place.
James, who has a background in the financial sector, has a wealth of experience from the world of work – enough to know that Wiltshire’s employers demand more of the youngsters joining their firms than academic excellence.
“Listen to industry – that’s what the employers are saying,” says James. “Students are bright, but they aren’t work ready. They’ve been spoon-fed to get results, but none of their other talents have been developed.
“Exam success is important – and our maths and English results are the best they’ve ever been – but there’s more to education than grades. Our kids leave ready for the world of work. And if they want to go to university first, they’ll have skills that make them stand out in a competitive marketplace.”
Now James has joined the board of the North Wiltshire Economic Partnership, giving him the ear of the region’s business leaders and a say in the way the local authority delivers economic development.
Partnership manager Colette Mallon said: “When I met James I was so impressed by his enthusiasm, and it was clear that he understood the needs and concerns of local employers. We’re delighted to have him on the board.”