Business courses fail to prepare young people

Vocational business courses in the UK’s schools and colleges have been largely condemned by an Ofsted report published this week (“Economics, business and enterprise education. A summary of inspection evidence April 2007 to March 2010”).   The Report’s criticisms single out those courses which are heavily dependent on  coursework and internally marked assignments.   It also comments on approaches to assessment as being “rather narrow and simplistic”.   Although students are achieving good results, the quality of students’ work and their knowledge and understanding is weak, the report says.  

“In 30 of the 39 schools, learning was limited by a focus on completing written assignments to meet narrowly defined assessment criteria, rather than securely developing broader understanding and skills.” 

As a result, the report adds

“students often had only vague ideas about the economy, interest rates and their impact, recession, inflation, why prices vary and the ownership of companies.”

 (Ofsted June 2011)

On the one hand the report fails to give credit to the many reputable vocational business qualifications that effectively test knowledge, understanding and practical skills to a high standard.   The Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), for example, offers qualifications that are relevant to the needs of business and are supported by rigorous assessment requirements.  The AAT’s popularity and growth reflect the qualification’s proven success in helping people to get work, do a good job and progress in their career. 

On the other hand, anyone with experience of the current school system and further education won’t be surprised at Ofsted’s findings.   Business courses which rely on coursework and internally marked assignments are of variable quality.   When struggling with increasing demands on teaching staff,  scarce resources, the pressure to pass more students and a prescriptive regulatory system, colleges will take short cuts and standards will be compromised.      And of course it’s not just business education that suffers.  I remember my son’s remark when he was studying Romeo and Juliet for his GCSE exams.  I asked him what he thought of the play.  ‘Oh we’re not reading the whole play’ he said, ‘we’re only tested on one passage!’.   What a shame that my son and his classmates didn’t get to understand Shakespeare more fully and in a wider context.  How much did they really learn from such a selective approach?  Sadly, this is indicative of the general approach to education at all levels today.   The phrase ‘what gets measured gets done’ springs to mind.

It is a shame that the press seizes on reports such as Ofsted’s to bang on about the general ‘dumbing down’ of education.   It’s not all bad and there are many examples of high quality, innovative courses that buck the trend.   But we must allow educators the freedom, flexibility and resources to develop well rounded students who are prepared not just for their exams, but for life.

Download the Ofsted report here:

Ofsted Report June 2011

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