24th September 2020

Governments love league tables. We have them for schools, for deprivation, for universities, but funnily enough not for the performance of constituency MPs. In our sector we have the REF, the TEF and now the Knowledge Exchange Framework (note not excellence, and I know it's not really a league table, but don’t bet against there being one in a year or two). However, league tables are not the only way to benchmark, to highlight excellence, and to identify areas that could be developed and improved. For that we have independent peer reviews. I don’t mean the regulatory bodies of government such as Ofqual or the Office for Students. But real peer review with credibility, like the Small Business Charter (SBC).

I’ve been an SBC assessor since the scheme was launched and I have carried out over a dozen assessments. I’ve been through two assessments at my own university, and I’ve been on the Board of the SBC for a number of years (I’ve just stepped down by rotation). The beauty of the SBC is the credibility of the peer review process. Each panel has to include an academic, a small business representative and an assessor appointed by Enterprise Educators UK. The dimensions are split between three pillars: support for small businesses; engagement with stakeholders in the local economy; and student enterprise and entrepreneurship support. The assessments are intense, rigorous and shine a light on the good practice and development opportunities for each business school. Yes, it can be challenging as to whether the business school plays a substantive part in some of the areas, but on the whole it is an accreditation the business school and the university should be proud of. We have also introduced exemplars to identify sector leading good practice and provide rigorous feedback to business schools on why they have not met the dimensions they applied for.

Like a staff survey, an external peer reviewed audit can give senior leaders some rich feedback on their relative strengths and weaknesses and sometimes the results are surprising. And continued engagement enables the business school to see the distance travelled over time, and to see whether their strategy is aligning to good practice in supporting business growth, stakeholder engagement and enterprise education. So my first question is to business schools that have not been through the Small Business Charter; what are you afraid of? As a manager and a leader I want data, I want feedback, I want to benchmark, I want to be reviewed and tested. Ultimately I want to improve. A league table may be simple but we all know measuring a small number of quantitative metrics can lead to unintended behavioural changes. So my second question to policy makers is, do you want improvement, or do you want uniformity?


Jon Powell is a Dad and husband and in his spare time is Head of Enterprise and Innovation Services at Lancaster University, Past Chair of EEUK, Vice President of Lancaster District Chamber of Commerce and a small business owner.