Business studies courses vs those on public and not-for-profit sectors. Plus careers & exams in a CV19 era.

The disgraced former Defence Secretary, now the Education Secretary, made an extraordinary claim about exams recently. As you can imagine, there were more than a few people that contested the claim repeated by the Department for Education’s Twitter Feed. Mariana Hyde in The Guardian also lashed out him with her virtual pen.

In my experience it was the Civil Service Fast Stream Assessment Centre that I found to be the toughest but fairest assessment of my potential – irrespective of whether I or my fellow candidates went on to achieve that potential. In my case I passed the test but did not achieve my potential. That doesn’t invalidate the test – rather it raises questions about what happened down the line, including decisions I did or did not take.

On cuts to careers advice services by ministers

Cuts to careers services are one of those things that austerity-minded ministers can enforce on schools and colleges knowing that they won’t be held accountable for the consequences when they hit later on down the line. We only have to look at what happened to the old Connexions Service, changes to which Michael Gove and co were damned for by the Commons Education Select Committee in 2013.

I was of the generation in the mid-1990s that received woeful careers advice in a resource-starved education system on its last legs after 18 years of austerity. It didn’t matter how hard or caring teachers might have been, I struggle to think of anyone who ever mentioned how useful any guidance or advice was. If anything, it was the opposite – people succeeded inspite of, not because of the institutions they had been through.

O-Levels, GCSEs, GNVQs, BTECs, Apprenticeships….what is the purpose of examinations, and what is the purpose of our system of schooling? The myriad of qualifications introduced, changed, and withdrawn over the past few decades has made it much harder for employers to glance across CVs and application forms to compare candidates. And at what point does that GCSE taken in the mid-1990s cease to become relevant? What is the half-life of a school/college/university qualification? I just got my Certificate in Sociology, Politics & Psychology from Cambridge University in the post today. You can take Cambridge’s distance-learning courses at their Institute for Continuing Education. (I learnt a lot about my limitations on studying as a result of this course due to chronic ill-health. I’m no longer capable of a full day’s intense studying as I was in the past).

1990s Lost Cambridge – GNVQs in Business Studies, and Leisure & Tourism as catch-all subjects for unsure teenagers less likely to get to the 5-Cs threshhold.

I had a number of friends who were in this position, trapped in an education system that simply was not flexible enough to cope with their different pace of development, growth, and different preferred methods of learning. Just as being made to take GCSE exams was too early for them, taking A-levels after two years of study was too soon for me – I found an entry in my manuscript diaries from the late 1990s where I stated I needed another six months of studying before I was ready. But the system could not compensate for that. At the start of my civil service career in Cambridge, I met up with a handful of people I was at school with who did not do A-levels, but did end up going to university and/or were studying part time. Which then made me wonder about how that system of schooling had failed a generation rather than just me.

We hear about how local colleges should be training young people according to the needs of local economies – but does that include the public sector as well as the voluntary and community sectors?

In 2008 Ofsted released a report about the state of teaching of business studies. You can read it here. The report covers a period 2004-07. This would have given the teaching profession enough time to start implementing the significant amount of research and investment that was being put into the sector following nearly two decades of austerity. That’s not to say throwing money at a problem automatically makes it go away. Only later on did we find out about the scandals of the Private Finance Initiative. One thing that struck me was this.

Above – concern about uninspiring courses, and limited contact with employers and local businesses. Ofsted 2008.

University Technical Colleges – set up to help deal with skills shortages relevant to local economies.

UTCs were introduced by the Coalition Government from 2010 and read as if they were one of the policy responses to deal with what Ofsted identified in its 2008 report. In Cambridge we got one – what is now the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology. (Not the same as the old CCAT – Cambs College for Arts & Technology, now Anglia Ruskin University). The courses here are aimed at 14-19 year olds and address the skills shortage of technical level workers in the local economy. At various times over the past few years I’ve called on the decision-makers to expand course provision to adults so that people retraining into new careers can take advantage of what are still new facilities.

Business Studies, but nothing on public administration or charity/community administration?

That’s not quite true – the BTECs in Public Services (A-level equivalent) were introduced in 2010. Furthermore, you can get cheap copies of the textbooks published from that time to get a feel for what the course content is. (The second book of the course is here). Part of the problem is that there is no single-subject A-level equivalent as there is for Business Studies. Sadly in Cambridge the only route available for this course is Uniformed Public Services at CRC, which has a large active/out-and-about component to it. As their course outlines show, this restricts the number and range of institutions it might be suitable for. I wouldn’t know where to start with incorporating the study of public services in the International Baccalaureate framework in England.

One of the reasons why this matters is related to the lack of education on politics and democracy – something that is also the fault of ministers for not shifting on this. It’s not like children & students have not continually demanded this. Successive ministers have *chosen* to do nothing on this. When some MPs come out with statements like this, it’s hard not to put the two together. It’s like the sort of statement I heard from some people at church in the 1990s about sex education, where they stated openly that teaching teenagers about it would only encourage them to go out and do it. When I finally left Cambridge and got to Brighton, I found myself utterly unprepared for the real world across a whole host of issues – including how to ensure the place you’re living in isn’t a death trap.

“Wouldn’t A-level politics cover public administration and charities?”

As concepts, yes. In terms of their functions, no.

In A-level politics you might discuss the merits of how to deliver healthcare to a society – a privatised system like in the USA, or a free-at-the-point of delivery as with the NHS here. You wouldn’t go into the detail of how to run a health clinic as you might do if you were developing a public administration syllabus.

There’s also the inevitable class stigma associated with different qualifications. Every time ministers sing the praises of apprenticeships, I remind myself that one of the acid tests is when you see students from expensive private schools declining to go to university and applying for apprenticeships instead. In 1990s Cambridge (though I didn’t realise it at the time – it was all we knew) the stench of the class divide in education was absolutely rancid. Unless you were stubborn as the proverbial, children of ambitious middle class parents were lent in strongly to do A-levels even though their hearts might have been on something else. Where have we heard that story before in popular culture?

Why the post-CV19 world presents an opportunity to raise the profile of public services and charity administration and areas of study for young people (and adults too!)

Over the past few years I’ve seen some incredibly talented young musicians performing at places like the annual Strawberry Fair, and The Cambridge Junction (I’ve been one of their subscribing supporters for the past couple of years – you can too, see With some of their performances they have been at such a high standard that I’ve wondered why they still have to do homework from school. This is Ellie Dixon, still in her mid-teens before her GCSEs back in 2014.

Ms Dixon now holds a degree in maths, and is now a full time musician. We are now living in a time where the children potentially know more than their parents – and that’s something that both parents and politicians collectively are struggling to come to terms with.

Which brings us back to Gavin Williamson’s statements earlier. We saw the absolute shambles of the GCSEs and A-levels earlier this year. There are calls to scrap both sets of exams this year. How is it fair to even begin to compare the cohorts taking exams under the CV19 restrictions with everyone else? The restrictions have forced the issue – parents having to cope with educating their children at home under lockdown, to online lectures and classes where schools are closed. Assuming the vaccines prove ultimately successful and the restrictions are lifted, the world we re-emerge into will be one that is inevitably different to the one when the restrictions were brought in. The rows of empty shop units (not just from the defunct Arcadia group, or Debenhams) will be a reflection of that.

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