A tech entrepreneur has taken inspiration from The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den TV programmes to devise a series of two-day workshops for schools under the banner of ‘The App-Prentice Challenge’, reports Claire Penketh.

The words most often heard on the TV show The Apprentice are: ‘You’re fired!’ But a Buckinghamshire businessman, David Hall, wants to make sure that for pupils in his county that refrain could be: ‘You’re hired!’ Students from years’ nine and ten (aged 14 to 15) worked in small teams over two days to project manage, market, design and develop a mobile phone app. Three schools and over 100 students were involved in this initial rollout of the workshops.

School rules

The one rule the pupils had to obey, was that the app had to be useful to the students’ studies or the school itself. The first event was held at Aylesbury Vale Academy, which was, up until relatively recently, in special measures. However, the Executive Principal, who took over in 2016, has turned it around and recently received a ‘good’ grading from Ofsted. On the second day of ‘The App-Prentice Challenge’ workshop, tech entrepreneur, David Hall and about 50 keen pupils, in teams of seven to eight, enthusiastically work away on their various projects.

Doing their homework

One such student Callum, was intently watching an advert on his laptop that he and his team had made to show the benefit of their app, which he said was a way for students to pre-order lunch: ‘Our video has everyone running out of the classroom at high speed - with some spooky music and a commentary that said: ‘We should have used Lunchtime…’ which is the name of our app that can pre-order food.

‘Then after they use our Lunchtime app, everyone gets up all calm and there’s some relaxing music playing while they walk out of the classroom normally. ‘They get to the canteen and type in their pin and the lunch lady gives them the food that they pre-ordered and thanks them for using the Lunchtime app.’

It wasn’t the first idea the group came up with – another was how students could ask a voice -activated app for health advice, which could also alert staff if a pupil needed help. But he said that, that one fell by the wayside after their initial research: ‘We did a survey and people voted that we do an online pre-ordering lunch app, so we did what the public wanted.’

Time for revision

Meanwhile, Abdul and Ezekiel were working in a separate team nearby, developing a revision app which tests pupils on their maths, science and English expertise. Ezekiel told me: ‘For some people, studying is a problem. They don’t like it because they find it boring. But with this app, it’ll make them feel like they’re having fun whilst studying and then people will get more into it and pass their exams well. ‘Computer science is a good subject and it gives you lots of opportunities in life. I’m going to do it at GCSE.’ Ezekiel added.

Good mental health

In another corner of the room, Charlotte, Selma and Josh were quietly concentrating on their plan - to help those who were being bullied or in mental anguish. Charlotte outlined their app: ‘We are creating an app which we think would be beneficial for everyone to use - it’s called ‘Anonymous Victims’ and it’s to help people with mental health issues.

‘If people are struggling with something and they don’t want to speak to a teacher or anyone else, then they can write their problem anonymously and send it from the app to someone and if they can help, they can message back.’

Selma added: ‘That way the pupils can feel more comfortable about it rather than speaking to someone in person. They’d get feedback until they are comfortable enough to speak to someone because pushing them straight away to talk is not something that should happen. ‘Right now, that is the main issue that is going around about mental health and bullying, and it is something that needs to be solved and dealt with.’

A tough taskmaster

To win the app competition, the pupils had to present their ideas to a panel of Dragons’ Den type judges that included the school’s Executive Principal, Roger Burman who was fulsome in his praise: ‘Really, really impressive – the students excelled themselves and really got into it and they’ve applied some really original thinking,’ he said. During the course of his cross-examination of the teams, Mr Burman was as tough as any real-life Dragons’ Den panellist asking pupils searching questions like ‘how would they make money from their ideas?’

Mr Burman continues: ‘They’ve put time and effort into it and you don’t want to be mincing your words and pacifying them - it’s important to give them a hard time because sometimes that covers areas that they haven’t thought about in the limited time they’ve had. ‘But overall, I’ve been blown away by this - you’ve had students who were standing up, being articulate and pitching their ideas and they’re the ones who wouldn’t ordinarily be in a position to do that - I was very impressed.’

David Hall, the tech entrepreneur behind the workshops is the Managing Director of his own company, Cloudy Group Ltd which specialises in modernising and digitally transforming SMEs and public sector organisations. He describes himself as an ‘average’ school student and that’s why he believes such workshops are important: ‘When I was younger, events like this really stood out because they were about thinking differently, about being a bit of an entrepreneur,’ he said.

Finding a winner

The prize for the winners was to showcase their app and marketing ideas at an event to support and promote young entrepreneurs. Hosted by the University of Buckingham, EntFest was set up by one of the more forthright panellists of the Dragons’ Den show, Peter Jones.

Over a thousand students from schools across the country who had come top of the class in similar workshops, flocked to EntFest and set up stalls in a market type set-up to display their efforts both to fellow pupils and to the experienced and well-established entrepreneurs who had flown in from around the globe to attend.

Why was the idea of celebrity important to David? ‘These are individuals that are recognised as they’re successful and are role models to a lot of young people. ‘The top team from the overall event will receive a prize from Peter Jones, himself, so this is a really good opportunity for them.

Enter EntFest

‘EntFest, in general, provides lots of opportunities as it’s a great place for these students to show off their ideas – and, you never know, one of these apps might get picked up one day!’ And the winner was – The Computer Predators from the Aylesbury Vale Academy who came top of the overall competition with their ‘Anonymous Victims’ health and well-being app for reporting bullying. That was the team that included Charlotte, Selma and Josh.

The aim is not only to engage pupils in computer science at school but to also give them a taste of a career in the digital industries, said David: ‘My passion and drive come from being an apprentice myself, and that is how I got into IT. ‘I run a business and one of our aims is to work with young people so that in future there’s a chance we could bring them into the company as apprentices and give them opportunities within the organisation.’

Rolling out the project

David is in talks with other schools and hopes to expand the project to go into more schools. He has already got a whole range of other organisations involved - including the Local Enterprise Council, the Careers and Enterprise Company, Microsoft technical engineers and the University of Buckingham to name a few. Plus, David adds that planning is going well for four schools to visit Microsoft’s headquarters where students will be treated to a fun packed day including an AI demo.

Gathering everyone in one place was a mammoth task said David: ‘It’s taken six to nine months of organising and we’ve been working across nearly a dozen companies and nearly thirty individuals. So, the first one has gone really well, and we’ve been blown away by the engagement from the staff, the students.’

Photo: Selma and Charlotte of Aylesbury Vale Academy take part in the App-Prentice Challenge.