Let’s teach kids skills for life

Richard Branson with his grandchildren, Artie and Etta, on Necker Island
Richard Branson
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 16 February 2023

I was never good at maths – the maths they teach in school anyway. Some people excel at trigonometry, calculus, or algebra and I wholeheartedly applaud those who do, and put their knowledge to good use in ways that make our lives easier. But we shouldn’t be excluding the vast majority of kids from learning practical life skills they need to succeed. As the 2023 Strive Challenge approaches, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The Strive Challenge is an annual adventure which raises money for Big Change – an education charity set up by my children, Holly and Sam, to back projects that support young people to thrive in all areas of their life, not just in exams. The people I meet on the Strive Challenge and through Big Change always leave me inspired by the bold ways that education can be reimagined.

Richard Branson hugging friends on the 2022 Strive Challenge
Adam Slama

Making your dream come to life can be challenging, but you need to be able to wrap your head around the basics. Learning about things like interest rates, how mortgages and loans work, and how much money is coming and going out is essential. For most of us, this is the real, everyday maths you need to know - core life skills that will benefit any child leaving school. So, I am all for teaching maths, but it’s the applied maths that will make all the difference when you’re working out a budget, want to buy a home, or start a business. And I hear that there is far too little of that.

In my experience, life is about looking at a problem and seeing how you can fix it. If you can turn that into a business idea, even better. My optimistic approach tells me that the maths usually works out when you’re improving people’s experience or changing something for the positive.

Richard Branson on a Virgin Atlantic plane with the first seatback entertainment screen

I like to say I attended the university of life, as I was fortunate to learn the important things along the way. Some concepts took longer than others to stick… It wasn’t until I was in my fifties in a meeting about finances that I realised I had no idea what they were talking about when it came to net and gross profits. Now that would have been useful to learn at school.

As a dyslexic, I thought I’d been hiding my muddling of words and numbers well for years, but on this occasion I’d been rumbled. One of the team kindly took me outside the meeting room after spotting my blank face. After I admitted my mistake, he showed me a simple way to understand it. He coloured a piece of paper blue, indicating the ocean, and put a net in the ocean with fish in it. He then explained that the fish in the net were the net profits and the rest of the ocean was our gross turnover. I realised I was poorer that I thought. I always thought it was the other way around!

A black and white illustration of a fishing net full of fish, over the ocean
Getty Images

This example always reminds me that every child can be different. Some may be visual learners; some may prefer words – but we need to include every single child and we need to teach things that will actually be useful.

I love this quote that sums it up: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

We try and make everyone fit into the same box, and people aren’t built that way. We’re all so different, and that should be celebrated. The way children are taught and set up for life really needs an overhaul so that they can leave school and pursue their dreams – and have the skills they need to make them a reality.

Holly Branson sat with school students
Adam Slama

I’m proud that Holly and Sam set up Big Change. It’s great to see the progress they are making, supporting more than 40 projects and 200k adults and children.

The world of work is changing so rapidly, and children who leave school without these skills will be left behind. We need dreamers, problem-solvers, and entrepreneurs to solve the big problems of our time – let’s set them up for success so they can keep changing the world for the better.

Big Change has also launched its Big Education Challenge with a £1m prize fund for people with bold ideas to transform education and learning. If you have a big idea, submit it here before February 22, 2023.