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The option that must remain wide open

Business education has been a continuing success story. The number of pupils following business studies GCSEs has increased year on year since 1986, and the proportion is now some 20 per cent of the pupil cohort. This is quite an achievement for what is regarded as an option subject especially after the pressure of the national curriculum.

GNVQ business courses have shown a similar pattern. They have established a strong lead over other GNVQ courses. In universities and colleges of higher education, business education courses among the most popular with students. Why? Two elements are common in all the successful courses: relevance and validity. Pupils see business education as relevant to the world around.

However, validity is present only where there is a wide range of learning and assessment modes. Courses that have been designed for the wider audience attract large numbers while traditional narrowly-based courses attract few.

In his review of 16-19 qualifications (or, more accurately, 14-19), Sir Ron Dearing has accepted the popularity of both the GCSE and GNVQ courses, allowing both to continue in parallel pathways.

In an attempt to improve the skills required in the workplace, the report also seeks to develop a key skills in communication, the application of number, information technology and interpersonal skills. Business studies teachers will be familiar with these, especially those who used the Business and Information Studies Courses.

The current pattern of GCSE business studies courses has had several years to establish standards and credibility. The GNVQ courses, however, have had a difficult start. They have been strongly criticised in a recent report by OFSTED and Sir Ron accepts there are problems. Most stem from a loose assessment structure and over-complex administration.

GNVQs have provided a wide range of learning and assessment modes. But it appears Sir Ron intends to restrict the range of assessment and, it is hoped, make these courses "more rigorous". This probably means more content-based assessment as the report recommends an element of external assessment. Such a move will automatically reduce their appeal.

Similarly in GCSE, the broad approach, started in 1986, of "Know, Understand and Can Do", has seen changes in assessment regimes to increased focus on knowledge to the exclusion of others.

If we are to include most 14-19 pupils in the education process, courses must be broadened both in the ranges of learning modesstyles and of assessment modes.This will mean more complex assessment, difficult for the officers of School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the exam boards to administer and possibly more costly, but there is no alternative.

Ben Kelsey Ben Kelsey is chief executive of the National Design and Technology Education Foundation

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