Richard Branson on Education, creativity & Risk-Taking
“I was a school dropout and we’re still killing creativity and risk”
The Entrepreneur Says Our System Needs To Change
At school Richard Branson would sit at the back of the class “doing my own thing”, baffled by the lessons. “I was a dyslexic school kid who had very little understanding about what we were being taught and what was going on on the blackboard,” he says. “Bizarrely for a dyslexic, I started planning a magazine to try to get young people to campaign for a change in the education system to make it more relevant to people, and also to campaign against the Vietnamese War and the Biafran War and other injustices that were going on in the world at the time.”
Omaze CEO and co-founder Matt Pohlson, Sir Richard Branson, Omaze winner Keisha, and Space For Humanity Executive Director Rachel Lyons congratulate Keisha at her home in Antigua
One day the headmaster at Stowe, his independent boarding school, gave him an ultimatum. “He said to me, ‘Richard, I know you’re starting this magazine. You’ve either got to leave school and do it or stay at school and do your formal education.’ I was 15 years old and so I said, ‘Great — I’m off.’ There was so much about education that I and other fellow students were really frustrated about, and the frightening thing is that in 50 years not a lot has changed.”
On Branson’s last day the head told him that he’d either end up a millionaire or in prison. That turned out to be prescient. By the age of 22, the entrepreneur had not only set up his magazine, Student, but had also opened a chain of record stores, Virgin Records, and founded the brand that would make his fortune. The Virgin Group now controls more than 400 companies, running trains, planes and even a rocket as the entrepreneur goes into battle with his fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to conquer space.
Yet as he looks back at his career at the age of 71, Branson points out that he would still be considered a failure by an education system that defines success purely in academic terms. “I once did an IQ test as an eight-year-old. I don’t think I filled in anything,” he tells me.
“Go forward 30 or so years, I was running Europe’s largest private group of companies. I didn’t know the difference between gross and net [profit], but it didn’t matter . . . what mattered was my character, whether I was good at inspiring people and motivating people, whether I wanted to make a real difference in the world.”
Branson still cannot do crosswords and is hopeless at spelling, but is convinced that the dyslexia that held him back at school has been an advantage in his business career. “I think by being dyslexic, I learnt to become a good delegator, which is a really important thing in life if you’re becoming an entrepreneur and building businesses.
Richard Branson Touchdown in Tampa Bay, Image by Virgin
“I surrounded myself with wonderful people who were better than me at a lot of things. I think I’m more creative at certain things. If [dyslexics] are able to concentrate on things they’re good at, they will really excel at them.” Getting letters in the right order is, by contrast, “so unimportant really”.
I am speaking to the businessman on Zoom as chairwoman of The Times Education Commission, which publishes its interim report tomorrow. I’m in cold, wet Hackney, he’s in the sun-soaked Caribbean, where he has been giving his grandchildren the sort of education he wishes he had had as a boy.
“Yesterday I took my grandkids around Necker Island and we said, ‘There’s a scarlet ibis over there,’ and then we went on the internet and found out all about scarlet ibis and how they’d been wiped out in the British Virgin Islands a hundred years ago, then recently reintroduced, and how if a scarlet ibis breeds with a white ibis you get a pink ibis. Then we moved on to flamingos and giant tortoises. We were just getting out and about looking at things which are relevant and exciting. And sadly the conventional school educational system doesn’t really do that.”
Branson insists there must be a total transformation in education to engage children in the digital age and prepare young people for the modern world. His family foundation Big Change, set up by his daughter Holly a decade ago in the wake of the London riots, is launching a campaign for a radical reshaping of learning in the wake of the pandemic.
The entrepreneur says that he was lucky to have had parents who could support him when he dropped out of school, but too many children, particularly the most disadvantaged, are being failed by the “one size fits all” education system in Britain.
“There are some people who need a particular way of being taught and there are others who definitely don’t need that way of being taught, and at the moment, everybody gets taught the same way,” he says. “So much emphasis is put on exams and that precludes schools from being adventurous. They’ve just to concentrate on exams, exams, exams. Creativity is stifled by the exam system.”
The focus on grades is increasingly at odds with what employers want, he says. “At the Virgin Group now, for most jobs we don’t ask for test results. We look for character. It’d be hypocritical for me, who left school at 15, to be judging people based on exam results.
“I would love to see a situation around the world where standardised testing is replaced by continual assessment, and people have a sort of education passport populated with everything wonderful that kids are doing, from academics to sports to how kind or how confident they are. For most jobs, you don’t need to be assessed in the formal, boring way which puts everybody in the same box.”
Virgin Galactic | Images by Virgin Galactic
Branson warns that schools, colleges and universities are failing properly to prepare young people for the workplace. “You definitely don’t need all that rote learning and memory skills,” he says. “I went to David Cameron in the first year that he was in office and said, ‘You know, as far as I’m concerned, if people want to become entrepreneurs, we’d almost prefer that they’d left school at 16.’ School is so irrelevant. Let them have the university of life by being out there learning from doing things.”
Virgin has started to offer loans to young people to start a business instead of going to college or university. “In running those businesses they are learning much more about life than they would ever learn in school or college,” Branson says.
The education system also, in his view, inculcates a fear of failure and “stamps out” the willingness to take risks, which is essential in business. Branson is calling for a radical overhaul of the curriculum, with a greater focus on creativity to foster an entrepreneurial spirit.
“The most successful people around the world are creative people — creative musicians, creative entrepreneurs, creative artists — they’re the people that make a real difference in this world, and the education system is not designed for them at all. Unless they quit school early, a lot of that creativity can be completely stifled. There are a few lucky ones that have managed to get through that and stay at school, but if I talk to Bill Gates or Larry Page or pretty well every successful person I know, they quit formal education early.”
The businessman insists that the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change course. A survey by Big Change and the Institute for Public Policy Research found that 79 per cent of young people, 74 per cent of parents, 77 per cent of teachers and 78 per cent of employers believe that now is the time to rethink the purpose of education and to change the system for the better.
“Through the pandemic, families have had to learn to teach their kids differently than they would have done in formal education and I suspect that for many kids they found that a blessing,” Branson says. “I think reform should not just come from teachers, it should not just come from politicians. It should come from young people.
“I remember my frustration being young and not being listened to, and I think I had every right to be frustrated. I was wasting my time sitting in a classroom doing completely irrelevant things that I had no interest in whatsoever, when I wanted to be inspired, and I had to effectively create my own education for myself.”