On Business Education

Re-edited from 1991 essay in PGCE Business Studies course at Sheffield Polytechnic (soon after, Sheffield Hallam University) to bring these points up to date. The subject area is schools but overlapped (I think awkwardly) with FE Colleges.

Contradictions in Business Education

The future of Business Education depends upon general educational and political forces. It also has specific and unique aspects in the curriculum: it imports the business culture into the classroom, it pioneered a special place for Information Technology, generated cross curricular learning and was a major example of discovery learning.

At one time the main contradiction in eduction was between the 1944 Education Act providing for all and the fact that it created an elitist system where some passed and many failed. Comprehensive reforms since then were equalitarian. But in the latest period there has been a change if not (yet) a complete reversal: the content if not the method of of the curriculum is becoming tightly regulated through the National Curriculum. When Keith Joseph introduced the GCSE it was on the basis that every student could work and excel at his or her level, but matters moved towards fixed hurdles again.

Conservative ministers of education since his day, were, with the possible exception of John MacGregor, combative and reforming, with a clear agenda against progressive theories of education. This approach continued with Labour from 1997.

The danger has been a return to education as defined by the Oxbridge university system, with a few passing and many failing, though to counter this possibility the stress has been on getting more and more success as defined by tests. Pass rates keep rising.

In the old approach business employers gained recruits from the academic failures; others went on to universities and the professions. Defined failures were the recruiting ground for what was intended to be a successful economy, to learn how business works, to be in tune with the technology that modern business needs and to have skills which are needed in a competitive world.

The Conservative agenda seemed to be, in this Business field of education as elsewhere, torn between the pass/ fail inherited aristocratic traditions of paternalism, status, education and social advancement on the one hand and market freedoms on the other.

Successive governments tackled the contradiction of more traditional education on the academic success model, more business (capitalist) education input and more people passing anyway by trying to raise the status of more vocational education (for example the GVNQ rivalling the GCSE) and by having mixed methods of assessment. It has been a cake and eat it policy.

At one time education was about the elite passing in the liberal arts. With the market ideology being triumphant business education has gained in relevance or status whilst the liberal arts have been relegated.

Unlike such liberal arts 'luxuries', Business Education is seen as connecting students to the world of work. Yet here lies some contradictions: it never lives up to vocational connections (because it isn't training) and it fails to be a critical education in its parodies of the business world (solve a problem, cost it, evaluate it). It fails in its existence as a self-contained subject even if using new learning methods, whereas other practical approaches were more obviously cross-curricular (once named Design and Technology, now Technology).

The question arises whether education ought to look back to its own past traditions and resources so that the idea of an independent, critical approach to understanding and knowledge is reasserted, rather than parodying the business world in its method.

One cannot divorce Business Education from what it represents. It is a cultural product like any other.

If it has been argued that formal pass/fail academic examinations are elitist and not part of the experience of the mass of students, it can equally be argued that group work about running a business, the role of money, the business culture, carried out in a way that imitates and accepts, is just as irrelevant for a mass of students facing low paid work, unemployment and alienation (or indeed when in low paid jobs and doing FE Business Education because their employers think it is good for them).

If it is argued that Business Education is relevant because offers practice in making decisions, most students will reply that they are told what to do (in work). This is when much of Business Education is potentially frustrating because it skims the surface vocationally.

And yet Business Education was growing, became increasingly popular, well liked, and expanded in schools and colleges because of demand as well as imposition...

For a time Information Technology was seen as located in the business world and therefore was linked to Business Education, distorting Business Education teachers time into IT. It fell in with Design and Technology and Home Economics, being grouped under Technology for the purposes of the National Curriculum.

Since then Information Communications Technology has become so pervasive for learning itself that it exists in every subject and the Internet has become a vital resource, adding to books and a sense of research. Nevertheless doing Business Education is still related to the practice of learning skills in office technology in IT.

The political culture and educational direction was set by the Conservative government in power for so long that the agenda was accepted by the New Labour government. In fact is was enthusiastically accepted by this ideologically neutered government. What preferred future might there be?

How Did We Get Here?

The rise of the business culture took place at a time of the decline of alternatives like social liberalism and socialism. There became, as never before, one hegemony of thinking, and education is one of its channels of transmission.

Politicians know the functions of curriculum. It doesn't just educate but socialise. Socialisation is the transmission of norms of thinking and behaviour that a society deems is culturally correct. When politicians make educational changes, therefore, they are made for their wider as well as narrower effects. The rise in the mass liberal arts and social sciences in the post war period was part of the social welfare and paternalist view of improving life. So the object was education as a means of developing a confident, critical, democratic society. But this was at first still linked to notions of social status and educational status (as in the hope that listeners to the Light Programme would gravitate to the Third).

Here lies a complex historical argument. Professionalism rose at the same time as industrialisation and the two are usually linked together as a division of labour. However, professions were an inheritance of aristocratic feudal notions of status in society and mercantilism. They are often local and artificial areas of speciality, reserving areas for the work of the mind and avoiding low status 'dirty' industry. They organised to exclude, to recruit the few, to specialise, to compartmentalise and therefore to promote the narrow academic. It is from this inheritance (and not the division of labour in industry) that gives us the notions of subjects in the sense that schools and universities understood them. Subjects specialise knowledge and exclude as much as include, and come from feudal notions of academia.

Incidentally there has been much criticism of Masters of Business Administration whether they are "proper" University subjects with the right level of critical academic rigour.

Meanwhile, subjects developed critical forms because knowledge is about paradigms which change: good subject knowledge, as defined by the university dominated system, fits into the Western intellectual tradition of iconoclasm. The way of progress is to be critical. Subjects are narrow canons, critical, independent.

Therefore, the joining of the British form of class system, professionalism and social welfarism shaped the post war educational system. To be progressive was still to look to tradition: everyone not just a few would learn in subjects, well contained in their boundaries, with vertical standards of excellence to be attained (as in the professions).

But, of course, the Post War period realised that this progressivism was inevitably elitist. The contradiction revealed was not unexpected. Politicians and educationalists knew that only part of the population would need to be academically skilled, able to learn to think at a high enough level set by the professions. To service industry there had to be provision for technical education, and good technical education was supposed to be equal with academic education. But the status system based around passing/ failing the 11 Plus exam buried technical education as second rate before it took off. Success was academic. Technical and Secondary education were lumped together. Apprenticeships trained those failures into the 'dirty' industry that professionals avoided.

So this was replaced, slowly, by the comprehensive system. It created uniformity to allow flexibility. Someone academically weak early in her school career might later improve and get the exam passes to allow her into higher education. Whilst she might take CSE subjects (if good enough) she could score the highest grade and gain equivalent results at O level to move on to A level and university. Success, however, was still academic.

Eventually the two tier examination system itself was changed to one promoted by the then Sir Keith Joseph through the GCSE, to which all would find their level (for a time).

The point needs to be made that whatever the elitism, the motives were always enlightened and progressive. When the two tier school system was seen to be still elitist, it was gradually changed.

However, continuing perceptions of economic and industrial failure in the 1970's in particular attacked liberal and very progressive notions of education (as defined). The notion that this country had to earn its keep grew. Therefore, to become more efficient in measurement by money, everything had to serve market demands. The paternalism of the old order began to be overturned in favour of economic liberal individualism. But, of course, whilst liberalism is preached for its freedom and the market for competitive institutions (choice), it also channels and limits. It favours involvement to commentary, compliance to criticism, vocation to pure thought. Conservative and New Labour politicians understand that the market and its mechanisms enforce materialist discipline. It can interface well with notions of order. Critical subjects are potentially impractical for a country in need of cheaper labour, greater labour force efficiency and international competitiveness.

In schools Business Education can teach the world of business more by description and imitation than critical analysis. The old subject approach seems irrelevant set against something that engages in the breadth of observation about a modern economy. It is often team based and attempts to be cross curricular just as life cannot be compartmentalised and must interact.

Yet this runs against old style understandings of standards - passing tests. Subject education is seen as simple to understand, offering standards and yardsticks of excellence and a sense of certainty. Therefore, we keep looking at those inherited notions of paternalistic education and reassert subjects and exams. Technical understanding and skill has to somehow join in, but does so awkwardly.

It is odd but, on the one hand education, responding to the Conservatives' and New Labour market agenda, is becoming less elitist, on the other the old elitism is being reimposed thorough the notion of diversity and choice - a choice of the supplier not the parent. The market is a suppliers market because schools have capacity constraints as soon as recognised success is achieved.

The Fall of Commerce, Computer Studies and Economics...

Commerce and Computer Studies were subjects which declined away. The first is had students getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of the business world without, by and large, an overview of what the business world was trying to achieve. It was a subject organised in a formal fashion, learning without decision making and evaluation processes, and it became riddled with gender problems because of the bias in shorthand and typing jobs. On the other hand built-in were positive notions that business had high standards expected of presentation (e.g., spelling, letters layout) which drew from basic formal education that had been taking place in other parts of the school.

Computer Studies was a response to the spread of the hardware of computing into the scientific and business world. Like Commerce, it had a formal educational feel involving, as it did, computer cards and the simple formal binary mathematics of programming. However, technology was moving on fast and the increasingly sophisticated hardware was for specialists in engineering and programming. The rediscovery of easy to use programs without need for knowing any computer language killed old style Computer Studies. Information Technology took over, immediately with the potential as a broad educational aid but with old style subject thinking put into the hands initially of Business Education teachers.

Economics survived these dinosaurs of Commerce and Computer Studies. A subject with a 'new' feel in education, it still lives, and fits in with A level subject speciality.

Economics as a subject is a social science. It is, therefore, analytical and critical. It analyses, in macro-economics for example, Monetarism and Keynesianism (involving hypotheses and perspectives) and debates the state of the economy. Thus, as the dismal science, with its own theories, it became fully part of the academic educational stream. It begins late in school life, in GCSE as previously O level and a subject one could begin at A level. It led directly to university education. Whilst it commented upon and analysed the world of business it did not enter into the activities of business or imitate business skills.

It is criticised as turgid and even irrelevant. People do not behave like the rational robots of its microeconomic statistics, diagrams and tangents which have all the feel of objectivity until it is found out that other people make these figures up. With the breakdown of Keynesian and later Monetarist doctrines the discipline has been in a crisis by its own standards. But academic it is and it isn't dead - yet.

And now even in University land it is shadowed by Business Education, with its more practical, hands on and less mathematical theoretical feel.

...and the Rise of Business and Technical Education

Business Education is indeed somewhat different. It tries to relate to the real world and what people actually do in both its content and method. Its method of study asks, "If faced with this business problem, how do you go about solving it from start to finish?"

This is more practical (but not necessarily vocational). It can go so far as to be a perspective over subjects rather than a subject and a method of looking at human activities.

In its discovery learning shared with (Design and) Technology first comes the decision of what to do to solve a particular business or/ and design problem, then comes the physical business or design content and finally is the evaluation. But whereas Technology does this with real resources and specialities, Business Education can only involve itself in pastiche in terms of the market place. Sometimes there are real business enterprises that schools enter into and then real experience is available. But usually the business end of a project is quite empty compared with making and producing using technology, if this is part of a combined project.

Of course, if Economics used discovery learning students would waste time rotating around the already received wisdoms; but, given that every Business Education problem is different, if the teacher over directs the students, they would not be setting their own solution into say the product design phase, they would not have then embarked on their own business and design work and finally they would be evaluating the teacher's work and not their own.

Yet such self-discovery is put under pressure by the need to shortcut and meet targets of success: telling students is quicker and more assured than finding out.

Traditional Teaching to Progressive Learning (and back)

Theories of learning have been brought in which distinguish understanding from knowledge. If someone else tells you something it may be counted as knowledge but if it is done for oneself it is said to be more fully absorbed and understood. The constant threat against these changes is to overturn the pedagogical justification for discovery.

As such, trends were away from the Skinner like in-out behaviourist model in favour of letting problems mull inside the heads of the students and developing their own problem solving capabilities.

But the closer is the narrow subject basis of education, the closer is it to behaviourism, a theoretical approach that can take no account of wider learning in welfare, caring, artistic and religious areas. But if in the course of a business project a student spends time in art work, so be it. This type of learning brings in the personal, the social, the creative, the unpredictable, the intuitive and the experiential. Change within the student takes place on a fully human level (some learning theories are theological in implications), and for these cognitive style, discovery and experiential learning systems are in action when modern Business Education is taking place.

Yet teachers are trained to produce Skinner-like lesson plans of measurable inputs and outputs, which although can work with discovery learning cannot track the full range of learning that these more discovery-like methods involve. The outputs may not appear within a lesson but may do in later life! Standards that can be measured attack holism.

Holism seems to allow frivolity, work becomes second rate and unfocussed when a learning output has to be measured.

Example: Eck' School

The points made above, comparing the subject/areas and teaching styles are well illustrated by how Y10 GCSE Economics and Business Information Studies compare at Eck' School in D'shire (1991). To make things simpler for the students, both courses ran sections about the property market. The intention was to combine some of the research needed across both subjects. This was a practice run for assessment in Economics and assessed in Business Information Studies.

In Economics the students used their gathered information from estate agents to answer three of their own hypotheses about the property market. Some hypotheses were simple (that four bedroomed houses are more expensive than three bedroomed) and some were more complex (how inelastic is the housing market). In doing this work they had to come to realise that the bulk of information collection follows the hypotheses rather than precedes them. Secondly, they had to demonstrate the hypotheses they wrote in each case was the one they were answering rather than something else. So this was theoretical and analytical work, even if simple most of the time.

In the Business Information Studies that level of analysis was not there. Rather they took account of the heightened optimistic colourful language estate agents write and were expected to use an existing house photograph to write a new brochure in the appropriate language using the word processing package available on the school's network. They drew hand drawn borders and logos on their brochures. Housing prices and types were also logged in a datebase.

This was largely an English and Design and Technology exercise. After all, the skill of the estate agent in any area is to assess market values and prices that will sell houses. To create fake brochures, a business parody, is to skim the surface of the activities of estate agents. It is frivolity.

The core of analysing the estate agent's problem was in fact carried out by Economics. This needed a deeper level of thinking than the Business Information Studies in terms of the core analytical and critical skills if not design and evaluation. Business Information Studies is more simply observational and semi-skills based, its students having to use word processing in its output but not the Economics students.

As an extra discussion point from higher in the school, I talked to a lower sixth former taking Philosophy A Level and double option GCSE Business Information Studies. She felt that whereas Philosophy was guided, taught and there was discussion, the Business Information Studies felt empty in that they were just left to get on with it. She felt a lack of guidance (unlike observed sixth formers grappling with the precision of the diagrams presented in A level Economics).

The school understood the problem and intended to move towards trying to combine elements of analysis and practice. BTEC National Business Studies was to begin, although this was not judged uncritically for its level of study [BTECs later disappeard). The school believed that Business Studies and Economics would come together.

Splitting Academic and Vocational Training

School policy has remained a confusion of types of qualifications, each one seemingly threatened by the other, whether A level being threatened by a more diverse AS Level, which itself had a poor and inadequately piloted start, GNVQ needing to have the status of GCSE and having to be of more rigour than the NVQ (driving test method, sometimes where the "road conditions" never vary), and both the GCSE and GNVQ threatened by National Curriculum qualifications, and some SATs being treated not as measures of school performance but measures of the children. Key Stage 4 in the National Curriculum conflicts with the GCSE.

The requirement to constantly raises standards fits into a background where firms constantly fail to train a high quality workforce, and where some training has become unemployment figures reducing in intention, where NVQs at lower levels certainly turn out barely trained potential workers. Employers have passed the buck to the educational system which has never been able to provide good quality and equal status technical and vocational education.

Then the politics comes into it that stress must first go on basic standards of literacy and numeracy which in the public and political mind seem in conflict with more experimental discovery methods of learning as championed within Business Education.

Intentions of equivalence of vocational with academic qualifications gets into jargon and threatens confusion.

There is Always Further Education...

Whilst schools are finding increasing pressures of curriculum and standards control and therefore rigidity threatens variety, further education colleges out of the political spotlight are able to respond to demands with an increasing variety of courses and freed from the school year an increasing flexibility of delivery.

Taking them out of local authority control, whilst less rational than it was for the national Polytechnics, has allowed for expansion in subject variety and kind where FE competes with school sixth forms/ sixth form colleges. Sixth forms have had to respond and done so under their own increasing autonomy.

Competition spreads both to schools and further education, but whereas schools have the benchmark of achievement and success as in the national curriculum levels, Further Education is much more demand led for what a course will precisely offer.

Of course who makes the demand is important. If it is a government scheme, or if it is an employer, it does not necessarily mean that choice (expansion) and student enthusiasm go together. It need not follow that the varieties on offer can cater for the real vocational needs of all students.

Also, there is no escape in FE from the academic ranking which goes on, despite attempts to provide new ways to Higher Education. A level continues as a gold standard compared with other equivalent and more flexible qualifications and this is because of the lower academic content of alternatives and only surface level vocational skills in compensation.

Some conclusions and going forward

Business Education has never been settled and has emerged from a confusion of the place of Technology within it and its relationship with Economics. It has another confusion regarding how much it is a proper subject, and whether its broader educational methods leave it unfocussed and "empty" against the grain of a return to measurable standards. Another confusion lies between the stresses of the market and a more social, education for its own sake, paternalistic approach, one of a background which prized academic achievement as success and entry into industry and business as failure. As a result a confusion of examinations and assessments exist, and the behaviourist method teachers measure their lessons' success, reflecting different educational, social and economic and political agendas.

As I survey the situtuation, with different levels of contact (in the PGCE course where much was emerging, and since) there is a confusion in my own mind! My own bias is towards critical education, not assimilation into a business culture. But there is no doubt that as a subject Economics became a failure of remote impractical theories. Secondly there is real value in cross-curricular activities which parodying business can achieve, but indeed it can feel "empty" and there is a need to focus on basic skills which many teenagers do lack (and do when they come to Higher Education). The two need not be exclusive, however. I think we have to say that teachers are the jugs for student mugs and discovery learning is slow and cumbersome.

Commerce at least looked at comprehension standards (like the RSA/OCR CLAIT) but it is far too narrow. In any case, people train in CLAIT when they want to understand their home computers. I am opposed to a fantasy style Business Education which introduces students to the idea that they can invest the odd £50 000 of monopoly money when our economy is becoming increasingly, in employment as in business, transcient, low waged, part time and unskilled, and unequal with the skills of value adding industry. Apprenticeships have been lost and there is now an underclass that dodges around unemployment figures and finds work where it can.

Much of the problem of education is similar to trying to reform the NHS to cure the nation's ills when it is wider society that makes people sick. We need wholescale social reform, and policies for skilled industrial and business investment rather than the market tick-tack that prevails today. Yet the context is one where industrial employment is going to the developing world and value adding is becoming problemmatic.

When it comes to solutions, government and the profession go round and round in circles.

Certainly Business Education and Economics should be together, so that Economics is more realistic and Business Education is more critical and theoretical. The teacher is an expert, with knowledge, and saving time, with less emphasis on discovery learning. There is nothing wrong with course work, there is everything wrong with bad parody. IT skills now develop across subjects and the intention (being achieved well) is that students are confident computer users.

Education across the board at school level and into (not specifically training) areas of FE has a job to do of preparing students to have basic skills and begin the capacity to mentally think. It is in this sense where Business Education should be thought of as cross curricular, but it frequently falls between stools and is lost in between the reference points of education since the Second Wold War.

Original essay sources

Maggie Mathews, Called to Account in Times Education Supplement, January 31st 1992, p. 43.

Dept. of Education and Science and the Welsh Office (March 1990), Technology in the National Curriculum, London: HMSO.