Business studies has soared in popularity over the past 10 years. Martin Whittaker explains its appeal and why industry is so keen to encourage this trend
Business studies has boomed in the Nineties. The figures say it all. In 1989 28,597 candidates took the subject at GCSE compared with 29,883 taking economics. This year 98,787 took business studies, while economics totalled just 6,584.
Meanwhile, registrations for advanced business GNVQ have increased almost 15-fold since 1992-93, from 1,849 to 27,394.
Why this growth? One possible factor is increasing pressure on school children to think about a career. A growing number of youngsters already have part-time jobs. And if they go to university, many will have to work to supplement student loans.
But there is also something about the subject itself. It brings real life into the classroom says Liz Francis, a principal officer with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
She says the growth of business studies has come in parallel with a growth in other practical subjects.
"In the main it's seen as something new, and obviously that can be motivating," she says. "But I think it's this applied nature - the relationship to the real world."
Business studies has had a phenomenal growth at A-level. But she says it should not be looked at in isolation. Psychology, media studies and PE are other growth areas at A-level.
Jenny Wales is chairman of the Economics and Business Education Association and co-director of the Nuffield-BP Business and Economics project, producing A-level and GCSE courses. She says business studies relates to the world youngsters live in.
"Young people are much more ready these days to think about preparing themselves for the future, rather than just thinking 'What's good for me?' in the traditional educational manner. It helps them move into the world of work."
The new national curriculum is due to go out to schools this week, and it has an enhanced role for business in education, with enterprise a strong theme in citizenship and PSHE.
But Jenny Wales is disappointed that despite this theme of enterprise, business has been excluded from the new "world class tests", or advanced extension awards as they are now called.
"The subjects that do have world class tests are the traditional ones. It's all English, maths, history, Latin. I'm not sure what else is on the list, but business studies isn't - and it should be.
"The message is that these are the subjects that count. And I'm seriously worried about the effect this has on bright students. They're going to want subjects with world class tests to prove what they're capable of."
What of industry's contribution? According to the Confederation of British Industry, the gulf between teaching and business of 10 to 15 years ago has narrowed considerably, enhanced by the growth of schemes such as education-business partnerships, Young Enterprise and teacher placements. About 52 per cent of CBI businesses now have some involvement with schools.
And education action zones, where funding comes jointly from Government and business, are likely to encourage partnership between businesses and schools.
Businesses are already talking about their contribution being in kind as well as funding - giving more time to schools, allowing staff to come in and share their expertise.
Aside from the obvious public relations advantages, there are other benefits for businesses. Cormac Bakewell, CBI policy adviser, says: "It can make a lot of sense for people in business to get involved in partnership work with schools because very often they live in the communities themselves.
"Not only does it add to the educational experience of the children, but it also helps develop the skills of the staff involved. A school can often be a challenging environment for them."
He says the CBI welcomes the growth of business studies in schools and universities. "But it's important that students who are business aware are not the only ones who go on to study business specifically. We want all children leaving school to have a high level of awareness."
Entrepreneur Alec Reed believes retired business people represent a huge untapped educational resource.
Mr Reed founded his business in 1960 and now heads one of Britain's biggest recruitment giants, Reed Personnel Services.
He is also a visiting professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and London Guildhall University, where he teaches courses in leadership, innovation and enterprise.
He believes too few businessmen and women are teaching in schools and universities. And the increasing numbers of business people retiring early are a free resource that should be put to use in the classroom.
"Schools and universities should be going out of their way to attract business people," he says.
"I'm in my mid-60s, and many of my friends have retired. Some of them have been retired for 10 years and they've had senior jobs - the more senior you are, the more likely you are to retire early.
"They're desperate to find something worthwhile to do rather than play golf. There's a tremendous non-connection between education and life. I'm giving a graduation day at a business school soon and I'm going to tell them 'God - what an advantage you've got. The guys down the road are studying medieval history. You're studying business. So who has their feet out of the blocks first?' " For further information about Nuffield-BP Business and Economics, contact Linda Westgarth on 0171 436 4512 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.To join the Economics and Business Education Association contact Sandra Halsey on 01273 846033 or e-mail: email@example.com