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Enterprise in Swedish rural schools: Capacity building through learning networks

Eva Leffler and Gudrun Svedberg
In about a hundred schools in the northern parts of Sweden, extensive development work is being carried out with the title Företagsamhet i skolan ('Enterprise in schools'). The purpose has been to support the ability of a new generation to manage its own future in a part of the country characterised by depopulation and unemployment. Our point of departure is the big regional venture that has been made in order to develop enterprise in schools in northern Sweden (the so-called PRIO 1 project) and current rhetoric. The exploration of enterprise in schools is marred by a number of fundamental difficulties. This has to do with the concept's varying meanings and roots in other research disciplines. The primary aim of this study is to analyse whether enterprise in schools contributes to education and, if so, which of its aspects are central. The study shows that the manifestations of enterprise in schools are in many ways in accordance with the school development aspirations of the last few decades, and the concept thereby runs the risk of being dismissed as a new label for old ambitions that have not been completely fulfilled. We argue, however, that the specific contribution that 'enterprise in schools' can make in education is found in the network development that has been started on different levels in the schools in northern Sweden. We therefore wish to emphasise 'learning networks' as an important part of capacity building.

We live in a period of rapid social, technological, economic and political change, and the question of what today's young people will need in order to face tomorrow's demands is multifaceted and difficult to answer. Besides these more overarching changes, local conditions also govern young people's chances in life (see also Oyanagi, 2003). Northern Sweden is a sparsely populated region with big differences between the coastal and interior areas. For example, the County of West Bothnia is situated in northern Sweden, covers one-eighth of Sweden's total area and has a population of slightly less than 3% of the total Swedish population (retrieved November 26, 2003, from http://www.vasterbotten.se/faktaomlanet/index.htm). Exploitation of natural resources has been the basis of industrial development and has been dominated by basic industries such as forestry and mining. It has been difficult for the region to create job opportunities, and it is characterised by emigration and a decreasing demographic ratio. These structural problems have resulted in extensive regional efforts in the form of subsidies from the European Union's structural funds for the purpose of stimulating employment and establishing new businesses (Bremberg & Kolmodin, 2003).

From this perspective, questions are also raised about how individuals, groups, organisations and communities, in view of the existing conditions in a region, can develop their own ability to identify and face these challenges. In addition to education and training, other aspects that are hard to define in economic terms, such as motivation, energy and enterprise, are also emphasised today. This has to do with a kind of capacity building from a dynamic perspective, emanating from local conditions and based on a continuous process with participation as an important key concept (see also Penman & Ellis, 2003).

On the basis of the above arguments, the phenomenon of enterprise in schools has made its appearance in educational contexts. The concept is widespread and is mentioned, for example, in OECD documents and in the European Union in the form of the Lisbon Treaty, and it is also being discussed on the national, but above all on the regional, level by educational policy-makers and individual teachers. All of this may suggest that the concept of enterprise in schools is well known and well established and is providing us with a new ideology or a new educational model matching future demands. But if we scratch the surface a multifaceted concept will emerge with almost as many definitions as interpreters. This vagueness causes the introduction of new terms such as "enterprise", with the connotations it evokes, to give rise to many questions and perhaps also some scepticism in educational contexts.

In the present study, an attempt is made to shed light on and to discuss this phenomenon on the basis of the current discourse and in a socio-cultural perspective on learning and development. The aim of this article is thus to study some central aspects of the phenomenon of enterprise in schools, or more precisely to study whether it can make a contribution to education and, if so, which of its aspects are central. Initially we wish, however, to give a short background to the development work in the PRIO 1 project that has been carried out in northern Sweden and that has caused us to ask these questions.


In the last decade, the phenomenon of enterprise in schools has been receiving increasing attention in Swedish schools, for example in connection with regional efforts made in the County of West Bothnia to stimulate young people's enterprise. One of these efforts is directed specifically towards students and teachers in compulsory and upper secondary schools in the form of a project. The effort is unique of its kind through the active role played by actors outside the schools, for example the European Union's structural funds and the Administrative Board of the County of West Bothnia, as initiators and sponsors of the project. The development work was started on a small scale in 1997, and is being carried out in its present form between 2000 and 2005. The concept consists of a number of individual school projects collected under the overarching project Prioritet företagsamhet Västerbottens län ('Priority Enterprise County of West Bothnia') (PRIO 1).

The aim is to increase interest in enterprise in West Bothnia, and above all to increase internal enterprise among young people. Internal enterprise is about thinking creatively and about being generally enterprising, communicative, candid and responsible. External enterprise is about preparedness for a future as the leader of a business or enterprise. There are resonances here with the distinction between social and traditional entrepreneurship respectively (McConachie & Simpson, 2003). One fundamental idea in the project is that, if internal and external enterprise becomes a natural and integral part of school activities, the knowledge of enterprise may increase and a change of attitude to it may be generated (Projektplan för PRIO 1 2003-2005).

PRIO 1 prescribes efforts such as increased co-operation among schools, local communities and local industries, but also an active interest in environmen tal and gender equity issues. All the 15 municipalities in the county are participating and a total of nearly 300 individual school projects have been started. In each municipality there is a project organisation and a co-ordinating resource supporting the active teachers, and efforts to develop their competence have been made within the framework of the project. This work should be seen as a long-term process in which the students' opportunities to develop their creativity, initiative and responsibility will help them to become active and socially creative individuals.

Since the municipalities have formulated their projects on the basis of local needs, the strategies for change and the contents vary from school to school. In addition, many projects have been carried out with great enthusiasm and a profusion of ideas. The wide frameworks have, however, led to difficulties in deciding which activities have been in line with the project work, which have been ordinary school activities or which have been part of other development activities. For example, certain projects have worked with innovations based on their own problems or assignments taken from their local communities; others have introduced elements of business or theatre, cafés or fairs in the schools; and a third category consists of those who have worked more specifically for more extensive co-operation between schools and working life.


Enterprise is a concept that is traditionally used in the economy, and it is also in economic contexts that the concept has its roots. When the concept was transferred to schools, a somewhat different meaning appeared. Adequate handling and understanding of enterprise in schools should therefore be conducted with words, concepts and thoughts that have been developed in relation to the context in which they are used. Only then can the phenomenon be visualised and subjected to examination and critical scrutiny, so that we can assume a reflective attitude to the issues that are raised.

One way of narrowing down the concept is to distance oneself from the ideological ballast that an association with industry or the private sector entails in educational contexts. We will initially approach the concept from two perspectives: studying the current rhetoric; and trying to separate and indicate what the concept does not represent.

What does the rhetoric look like in Sweden, then, and who are its advocates? The Ministry for Industry and Trade commissioned the business economist Bengt Johannisson and the educationalist Torsten Madsén to study the conditions for education and training in enterprise in the educational sector. This resulted in a report that has in many ways been pioneering in this field and trendsetting in school contexts. One of the goals of the enquiry was to identify and describe the personal qualities that are ascribed to someone who is enterprising (Johannisson & Madsén, 1997). This rhetoric is based on previous research in business administration and educational development. Another actor that has tried to define the concept in a school context is Närings och teknikutvecklingsverket, the National Board for Industrial and Technical Development (NUTEK), by presenting a national plan of action for young enterprise (Närings och Teknikutvecklingsverket, 2000). At the same time, the independent institutes of Skolverket, the National Agency for Education, and Svenskt Näringsliv, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, have also participated in this discussion (retrieved May 19, 2003, from http://www.individanpassad.se/main.php). These actors emphasise the learning processes in which the students' self-reliance, action orientation, own responsibility and involvement are promoted (Johannisson, Madsén & Wallentin, 2000). The external organisation and internal communication processes of work in schools are described as important building blocks for the development of enterprising people.

A clear distinction is made here between traditional and enterprise training, where traditional training is described as reactionary and conservative, while enterprise training is described as pioneering and stimulating (Johannisson & Madsén, 1997; Johannisson, Madsén & Wallentin, 2000). The educational culture that has been found to be conducive to creating enterprising students is characterised by providing considerable scope for their own initiatives, encouragement of independence, and creative thoughts and actions. Project work is described as a natural element for both students and teachers. Problem-based learning with extensive integration of different subjects is also a natural element in such a culture (Johannisson & Madsén, 1997).

PRIO 1's project description also depicts the enterprising student as a student who can take on responsibility, think creatively, take initiatives and have self-understanding as well as knowledge of enterprise. In the enterprising school, the student has an active and responsible role and cannot therefore act passively or indifferently in her/his own development and learning (Røe ědegård, 2000). This is to be achieved by schools testing and further developing new educational models, which involves, among other things, increasing network building between schools and other actors. Johannisson, Madsén and Wallentin (2000) emphasise that the educational system has a great potential and responsibility for taking care of and training children's and young people's enterprise.

There is fairly broad consensus about this rhetoric. But critical voices have also been raised, claiming that such efforts are a way of disguising the increasing youth unemployment and transforming structural problems in society into a matter of influencing young people's attitudes. But solving structural problems is a complex issue requiring more than merely changing individual attitudes (Johannisson, Madsén & Wallentin, 2000; Shacklock, Hattam & Smyth, 2000).

What is it, then, that enterprise in schools does not represent? The rhetoric in Sweden stresses that it is more a matter of training in enterprise than about enterprise (Johannisson, Madsén & Wallentin, 2000). This may seem somewhat ambiguous, so let us carry the discussion further. Training in enterprise is not about creating a special subject dealing with enterprise in schools, and it is not about changing the traditional teaching content either. Enterprise in schools is thus not to be equated with education in enterprise and management, even if students sometimes manage projects of their own or form small student businesses. The goal is in itself not to form a business or manufacture a product but rather to create an educational context that promotes the students' enterprise.

Nor is the intention to bring about changes overnight. Students of all ages are involved, and small children will also be given tools and conditions for developing their creativity and initiative. This effort thus includes a long-term process whose goal is to create belief in the future and altered attitudes to enterprise. In the long run, the idea is that young people will be given opportunities to control their own future and also to contribute to the nation's development and future existence (see also Oyanagi, 2003).


We have tried above to narrow down enterprise in schools. An alternative approach, which we contend may be equally fruitful, is to focus not on the concept, but instead on the various activities and learning processes that have been carried out in the PRIO 1 project.

As mentioned above, the projects are intended for various age groups and are carried out in different ways. Some essential features may, however, encapsulate what enterprise in schools may be about. We have seen that the assignments are often complex, span several subjects, are pursued over long and continuous periods and are often manifested in concrete ways. The students are not seen as pass ive recipients of information and rules but as active learners who, in interaction with classmates, teachers and others, investigate, select and transform learning material. Group oriented working methods are usually used, and the students learn to solve problems together with their classmates. By borrowing Bruner's concept, we can describe the projects' ambition to change the learning processes from "learning about" to "learning to be", which clearly indicates a kind of identity creation (Brown & Duguid, 2000, p. 128).

But are these descriptions not felt to be fairly well known? An examination of the policy documents of the last three decades shows that enterprise in schools is in several respects in line with the documents' intentions, for example through their formulations of co-operation with local communities, interdisciplinary working methods, students' opportunities for learning to learn and individualised teaching (see Läroplan för grundskolan. Allmän del. (Lgr 69); Läroplan för grundskolan. Allmän del. (Lgr 80) och Läroplaner för det obligatoriska skolväsendet och de frivilliga skolformerna Lpo 94: Lpf 94 ['Curriculum for compulsory schools. General part. (Lgr 69); (Curriculum for compulsory schools. General part. (Lgr 80); and Curricula for the compulsory school system and the optional school forms Lpo 94: Lpf 94']).

The intentions of the trends in educational development of the last few decades, which have advocated problem-based learning, experience-based learning, student-active learning and dialogic classrooms, also seem to be included in what is described above. Is enterprise in schools, then, merely a new label for old intentions or trends in schools, some of which have stagnated while others have been fulfilled? It might be tempting to give an affirmative answer to this question, and in the same breath to claim that enterprise in schools has its raison d'être precisely because it is in line with the control documents, and also because it has a long way to go before its intentions will be fully implemented. But we have also found aspects that are not quite new but on the other hand have acquired a completely new and prominent role in this context. The aspects we have in mind are present in the co-operation between schools and others in the local community, in industry and in trade - in short, in the surrounding world. We argue that this interaction is the most interesting part of enterprise in schools and the part that is most capable of being developed, and that it is therefore important to elucidate and reflect on what this can contribute to the teaching of this concept and its associated understandings.


In the preceding discussion, students are described neither as passive recipients of knowledge nor as independent thinkers who find their own solutions (see also Kozulin, 1998). On the contrary, a mode of learning through participation is described, in which co-operation with others is vital. In order to be able to describe and interpret these learning processes in their social context, we have made use of Vygotsky's theories, and of the ideas of those who have subsequently broadened his theories. Here we find a perspective that elucidates learning and development in terms of participation and enculturation in cultural communities (Rogoff, 2003) or communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). The term "communities of practice" refers to groups that co-operate in order to attain common goals, for example in the home, in leisure, at school or at work. In these communities, common routines, rituals, symbols, conventions and artefacts emerge (Wenger, 1998).

Schools and classrooms make up a particular kind of community of practice, often called a "community of learners" (Brown, 1997; Carlgren, 1999; Walker, 2003). In communities of learners, learning takes place through enculturation in academic practices, both generally and in the specific practices of individual schools and classrooms. In these communities of learners, students can, together with their supervisors/teachers or classmates, take part in joint problem solving that they would not have managed on their own (Rogoff, 1990). The above theory is important not only for the purpose of understanding the nature of learning and development, but also because it provides several important implications for the implementation and design of teaching (see Palincsar, 1998).

From our perspective, the concept network, which is used above all in sociology and research on enterprise, is a vital explanatory tool for our study. Research gives several different answers to what the concept of network represents and defines network as a method, a perspective or a metaphor (Lind, 2002). The term network is considered to denote a number of individuals who are connected through social relations, irrespective of whether these relations are strong or weak (Teigland, 2003). When using the term network, we see it as an explanatory model, which means that we can regard the phenomenon as structures of connected individuals, irrespective of whether they are inside or outside the school.

In enterprise research on networks, interest has been directed to how the enterprising individual gains access to and organises resources through her/his personal network. Relations in the individual's personal networks comprise both personal and social commitments. It has been shown that personal networks give the enterprising individual not only legitimacy but also social support and stronger self-reliance. Network building is described in phases, whereby in the initial phase the enterprising individual starts out from close relations that are then widened to include both society at large and global relations. In a society there are many arenas that provide opportunities for network contacts, and these venues are important for the building of local networks (Landström, 1999). The enterprising individual's network actions are represented as organising and learning in interplay with others, which invites a wider use of the concept, for example in school contexts (Johannisson & Madsén, 1997). How can we, therefore, from a socio-cultural perspective on learning, and with the aid of the concept of network, make visible and study the co-operation between schools and the surrounding world?


In the projects Företagsamhet i skolan ('Enterprise in schools') that are discussed in this article, teachers and students have developed co-operation with important others, inside and outside the local community. Important others refers to persons who are more experienced in a certain area and who possess knowledge and practice over and above what is already present in the community of learners. This may have to do with asking advice from or sharing an older relative's experiences, inviting the local sports association or a local craftsman, carrying out an assignment in collaboration with a company or exchanging experiences with students in another country.

The network building takes place in projects whose driving force is an ambition to understand, create meaning and look for resources in the form of knowledge of and tools for handling assignments. This network building has extended the knowledge base of the communities of learners beyond the classroom walls. It would be misleading, however, to regard these important others as members of the community of learners, since they are not included in the routines, symbols, conventions and artefacts that are prevalent there. It is precisely this encounter and interaction among individuals from different communities of practice that we find valuable to study. We will therefore take a closer look at what we call learning networks.

The network can be built for different purposes and may be concerned with a common leisure interest, goal or common problem. The term community of learners may also be said to mark a kind of network with strong social relations. It is, however, not this type of network that has caught our interest. When in this article we talk about learning networks, we are referring only to the communication that takes place between students in the community of learners and important others who are outside it. We do not emphasise the social relations as strongly as is done, for example, in social network theory (Teigland, 2003). On the contrary, we wish to draw attention to three other important dimensions of the learning network, namely interaction with important others, aims and communication channels.

The interaction indicates that it is a communicative interplay and a mutual exchange that cannot be replaced by one-way communication. Here we wish to stress that the interaction among the parties in the network, for example between students and the local business owner, contributes to mutual learning and thereby to changes in both communities' practices.

The aims of establishing contacts vary, but usually the contacts are initiated by the school or the learner, because of an assignment or a problem or a need for knowledge. But it is not only the wanted expert knowledge that is acquired. In a co-operative project, for example with a local craftsman, the students also acquaint themselves with other ways of reasoning, concepts, conventions and artefacts than the particular kind of practice that prevails in the school. It would, however, be going too far to argue that the students are enculturated into the community of practice with which they come into contact. Besides, and no less importantly, the students acquire knowledge of how to build networks and to work and learn in networks, and the ability to make use of one another as important resources, which is essential knowledge in capacity building (see also Penman & Ellis, 2003).

The last dimension of the term network that we are discussing refers to the primary communication channels that are used by the members of the network. The interaction may take place face-to-face, orally via telephone contact or via written communication, for example on the Internet or through a combination of different communication modes. It cannot be ignored that different communication channels lead to qualitative differences in the interaction. Irrespective of which communication channel is used, the students are given opportunities for training their social competence, language proficiency and understanding of other people's ways of reasoning and acting. Feedback can also be given on these occasions. In our communicatively rich society, it is not the communication channels that limit the scope of the learning network. Students can exchange experiences and ideas with others all over the world. On the other hand we may assume that the demand for interaction restricts the scope of the network.

To sum up, we can say that the central issue for schools is to help students to develop their communication skills and to be aware of the opportunities that are thereby made available. In this way the learning network will enrich participation and learning in the community of learners.


In this article we have discussed some central aspects of enterprise in schools and observed that it is difficult to capture fully the meaning and aim of its introduction in schools. The phenomenon is not unique to Sweden or the County of West Bothnia; on the contrary, there are similar interests in many other countries. In West Bothnia the effort has been partly motivated by structural problems and has become a part of the region's capacity building. Through its strategic entry into schools, the effort has reached the core of the current educational system and acquired an extensive potential for diffusion. From our perspective, the effort is based on the hope that schools will be able to solve social problems and on the belief that the region's future chiefly rests on human capital, which means that the confidence in the natural resources has been turned into confidence in the competence of the population.

The schools, which were established for purposes such as education, upbringing and the imparting of knowledge, are now also being used as a tool for identity creation that encourages the individual to move in a particular direction. What identity is then being aimed at? To be enterprising has, as mentioned earlier, been described as being able to make use of opportunities and changes. The enterprising qualities are further described in terms of "self-reliance, energy, creativity, ability to take risks, to communicate and to cooperate" (Närings och Teknikutvecklingsverket, 2000, p. 79). What problems will hopefully be solved by initiating this effort? Is it an altered image of the student that is created when she/he is described in terms of being energetic and socially creative? And how is the traditional student described? Are the terms "needful" and "receptive" adequate for the latter?

Within the framework of this article, we have not made a close analysis of what forces are behind the effort, but we wish to consider its effects to some extent. Enterprise in schools may be regarded as a metaphor that visualises the rationality of schools versus the rationality of industry and trade, which in turn involves implications for views of learning and teaching. Has economic rationalism sneaked into the practice of schools and can the metaphor "the market and the enterprise" best represent today's discourse (Dahlberg, 2000, p. 211)? Identities are no longer constructed on the ideas of solidarity and security but on such ideas as the individual's free choice and self-realisation, and a number of competing values struggle for dominance. But this metaphor seems also to symbolise a linking of two different discourses that have previously communicated with each other to a too limited extent. In this meeting we have found what we regard as the core of enterprise in schools.

We have argued that this core consists of the meeting and interaction between schools and the surrounding world and emphasised learning networks as an important aspect of educational contexts. We have observed that learning in this perspective is not restricted to a question of acquiring information but also includes the development of competent action and a stance towards what is learned. There are clear parallels to network building in other areas. The ability to co-operate and thereby get access to one another's knowledge, social support and a context in which learning is feasible must be seen as significant parts of capacity building (see also Penman & Ellis, 2003). This idea is supported by Dalin and Rust (1996), who think that network building and co-operation, both inside and outside schools, will be advocated in schools in the future. They argue that knowledge, insight and understanding are based on how others exist, what motivates people and how the individual relates to others.

We are aware of the problems embedded in this argument. Who has the responsibility for creating meeting places - the schools or the surrounding society? Johannisson and Madsén (1997) think that, if the schools do not co-operate actively with industry and trade and other actors in the local community, the schools will miss important means of access to knowledge. On the other hand, it is equally important that industry and trade take an interest in schools in order to be able to make use of opportunities for co-operation with enterprising students. The question of how arenas for learning networks can be created is of great importance. The co-operation that teachers and students develop with the surrounding world, and the effects that this co-operation has on teaching, are thus a central aspect of enterprise in schools and an important part of a region's capacity building.


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Author details: Eva Leffler is a doctoral student in educational work in the Department of Teacher Education in Swedish and Social Sciences at Umeå University, Sweden. She has a background as an elementary school teacher and has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and pedagogy.

Gudrun Svedberg is a doctoral student in educational work in the Department of Teacher Education in Swedish and Social Sciences at Umeå University, Sweden. She has a background as a home economics teacher and a special education teacher.

Please cite as: Leffler, E. and Svedberg, G. (2003). Enterprise in Swedish rural schools: Capacity building through learning networks. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 83-99. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/leffler.html

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