ISBE February Blog

Professor Nigel Culkin, Past-President and Fellow, ISBE

If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing. (Bill Shankly)

In addition to sport, competitions and challenges are a staple of enterprise and entrepreneurship education (EntEd), a regular part of extra-curricular provision at universities and now recommended for all 11-18 years olds in school in England.

But in between the enthusiastic policy prescriptions and the drama and excitement of competitive activities, limited attention has been given to any potential downsides of competitions; and, they remain under researched and under theorised (Watson et al, 2014). Our new article utilises principles of Realist Evaluation (Pawson, 2006; 2013), to examine how competitions feature in European policy over a ten-year period. The approach involved ‘mining’ positive outcomes assumed in policy, and then searching for theory which challenged these assumptions. 

We were struck by how the positioning of EntEd competitions in EC policy guidance has shifted dramatically over this period. Initially described as an ‘effective communications activity’ in 2006, competitions had, by 2016 morphed into a fully-fledged pedagogical approach and assessment method. 

Our analysis also revealed the extent to which competitions and competitive pedagogies were handed down as a method that claimed to deliver significant short-term and long-term benefits. Policy documents often affirmed that competitions develop students’ skills, are motivating and students are inspired by their peers in competitions and find competitions rewarding. However, applying a realist logic of enquiry our investigation reveals an alternative set of unforeseen consequences. 

The article brings to the fore, a diverse body of psychological and educational research that challenges the “intended” outcomes of EE competitions declared in policy. Evidence shows competitions can (and do) diminish competency, interest in, and alienates young people from, entrepreneurship before anyone can reasonably guess what their futures might hold. Of most concern is that competitions and competitive pedagogies are promoted in school-focused policy and guidance as an effective approach for all students, of all ages, in all contexts; as a result, young people will increasingly be conscripted into such activity through compulsory curricula or extra-curriculum activities (Rideout & Gray, 2013).

Finally, our analysis indicated that competitions lead to unforeseen outcomes, especially for those in ‘at risk’ groups (e.g. students from lower socio-economic backgrounds).  Essentially, EntEd competitions enable confident, socially and culturally advantaged young people to gain additional social and educational capital that will benefit them further at a later time and thus, in effect, create greater disadvantage for their less well-equipped peers.

Such insights are crucial in providing a deeper and fuller account of reality, so that practitioners and policy makers have a better understanding on which to base their decisions and practice. Our approach enabled us to look beyond the intuitive appeal of competitions and competitive pedagogies and test theory which underpins such interventions. This method (realist evaluation) has revealed that whilst entrepreneurship education competitions are presented as fun and effective interventions for all, the declared benefits and positive outcomes are by no means guaranteed. 

This blog post is based on the article, ‘The contribution of realist evaluation to critical analysis of the effectiveness of entrepreneurship education competitions’ by Brentnall, Rodriguez and Culkin. It is free-to-view in the Journal Industry and Higher Education for a time-limited period, courtesy Sage Education. 

Read full chapter here:


Pawson, R. (2006). Evidence-based policy: a realist perspective. Sage.

Pawson, R. (2013). The science of evaluation: a realist manifesto. Sage.

Rideout, E. C., & Gray, D. O. (2013). Does entrepreneurship education really work? A review and methodological critique of the empirical literature on the effects of university‐based entrepreneurship education. Journal of Small Business Management51(3), 329-351.

Watson, K., McGowan, P., & Smith, P. (2014). Extracurricular Business Planning Competitions: Challenging the Assumptions. Industry and Higher Education28(6), 411–415.


No spam. Just the latest releases and tips, interesting articles, and exclusive interviews in your inbox every week.

Newsletter Sign Up
Your information is protected by us. Read our privacy policy