Inside information;Subject of the week;Economics and business
Sir, that Richard Branson, right, he started off the same as us, didn't he? And now he's well rich!" says 15-year-old Paul as we revise "setting up in business" for this year's GCSE.
"Why don't you try?" I ask. "I'm going to!" he flashes back, "no - seriously!" Read any textbook on the reasons for Britain's alleged industrial decline over the past 130 years and the theme that stands out is the failure to produce home-grown entrepreneurs. Joseph Schumpeter, that great theorist of capitalism, defines the entrepreneur as one who possesses unusual managerial skill combined with a willingness to take risks and having a view to future possibilities.
While Paul's managerial skill may currently be confined to remembering to bring his textbook to class, no one can doubt his willingness to take risks or his view to future possibilities. He has an idea about the world and he wants to run with it.
There are presently some 110,000 children, like Paul, studying for GCSE business studies and the numbers look set to continue rising. For many, it might just be a welcome change as they are confronted, perhaps for the first time, by real and genuinely important options at 14. At last, a chance to show their teachers and their families that they have ideas about their future!
"I wanted to do something about the real world," says Kate. While we can question the fairness of Kate's implied slur on everything else in the national curriculum she does nevertheless represent a large and vocal cohort of students who want to be motivated by questions, scenarios and assignments that seem to touch their experience and aspirations.
Oscar Wilde famously complimented young people on the grounds that they were the only ones with the experience to appreciate his work, which picks out the central paradox that, ultimately, as teachers our challenge is not one of filling an adolescent void, but rather making the best of children's dreams and possibilities in a limited world.
All this might seem a world away from a GCSE course - or a year 9 options evening, however unquestionably popular the subject has become. Yet a key tenet of business studies is that a 15-year-old learns to change the changeable, internal aspects of an organisation, while learning to live with the external constraints which they cannot change. A bit like life.
For many GCSE students, what first attracts them to the subject may not be what motivates them to succeed in the final examination. The idea of business studies may conjure up high-tech images: cutting-edge information technology, money, even glamour. But after the delights of visits to the Body Shop, Ford's of Dagenham or Alton Towers have faded, GCSE business studies is not qualitatively different from any other course: it requires hard work, analysis, literacy, numeracy, and an ability to deal with concepts. What seems to make it attractive to students is that it appears relevant and accessible.
Take Joanne, for example, Joanne's mum and dad own a corner shop. Jo sometimes helps them out, which has given her a lot more confidence. She is also a member of the air cadets where she is a sergeant. A rough guess would put her at having gained access to between a third and a half of the underlying business concepts which she has studied over two years: management, internal business organisation, business objectives, business environment, human resources . . . and more. While this access is only the start, what matters for Jo and others is that GCSE business studies was a subject that she did not have to approach empty handed.
"Of course, the real reason for the popularity of the course has to be the outstanding teaching." A roar of collegial agreement followed this statement to my department, matched only by the howls of adolescent cynicism which greeted the claim when I put it to the class.
But what is serious is that I, as a teacher of a non-national curriculum subject - schooled in the laws of supply and demand - am quite simply forced to practise what I preach. If I don't supply, the market will fade away. And so will I!
This means that, as teachers of business studies, our livelihood depends on stimulating demand among pupils. A poorly received run of lessons, bad results or a reputation for "being boring" or "a waste of time" are as likely to focus the mind as any memo from management.
Business education and the national curriculum continues to provoke lively debate, especially in the light of flattering Ofsted comments about the subject as a whole, and effective lobbying by parties such as the Economics and Business Education Association (EBEA). Curiously, it may yet find a formidable ally in the increasingly fashionable subject of citizenship education.
David Blunkett said recently that: "Education for citizenship is vital to revive and sustain an active democratic society in the new century...Linking rights and responsibilities and emphasising socially acceptable behaviour to others underpins the development of active citizenship." Without wishing to demean the "average British 15-to-16-year-old", it is fair to say that abstract thought on the concept of citizenship is unwise to say the least.
However, what business studies GCSE does - which is central to its worth - is to present the student with three themes.
As consumer, students are asked to reflect on their experience of dealing with organisations, with all their limitations and vested interests: consumer power exercised through choice as well as effective marketing and advertising strategies; customer service; social and environmental risks and costs.
Then, as producers, they are faced with decision-making; what to produce, where, how and at what cost; how to manage, motivate, recruit, retain and communicate with partners, employees and other organisations. This includes the concept of opportunity cost - to choose A means that I have to forego B.
Finally, as stakeholder - as the many and varied people who have an interest in an organisation, whether through power and influence, or at the level of recipient. Students must identify different individuals in different roles - each with a genuine point of view.
It may seem abhorrent to some that citizenship education and UK capitalism should be bedfellows, and indeed it would be if the popularity and success of GCSE business studies lay in an unquestioning emphasis on self-enrichment by some at the expense of others. But this is not borne out by experience. What so many students point to as the subject's greatest strength is, quite simply, that it helps them see how organisations function.
Simon Uttley teaches at St John the Baptist School in Woking, Surrey