Following my (second) exit from TfL I have gained some new followers. I have promised to post some advice on handling the Knowledge process, but I need to update this material. While you wait, why not put on Dark Side of the Moon and immerse yourself in the brief story of my return to the Knowledge, originally wrote as a magazine article in 2013. More articles to follow later…
As a qualified Careers Adviser I am naturally interested in the jobs people do. When I was a Knowledge Examiner I would sometimes ask my candidates about their work. I saw lots of firemen, several IT experts, some from City finance, tube and bus drivers – plus a fair few disaffected mini-cab drivers. The trade has a long history of being home to those with artistic talents: music and acting, for example. Quite a few cab drivers are ex-teachers; and there are former policemen on both sides of the examining table.
The Knowledge is a tough thing to accomplish, but once you’ve completed it you know you can do anything you put your mind to. I’m not sure how many cab drivers make the move out of the trade in order to follow a different career, as I’m the only person I know who did so. Nothing wrong with trying something new, but it’s a risky strategy if you give your badge up too. So, unless you love the Knowledge so much that you don’t mind doing it twice, take my story as a warning…
However depressed the cab trade has been over the last few years, it wasn’t as bad as it was in the early 1990s. I’d only been licensed for a couple of years, but was already looking for a way out. With vague ideas around writing and teaching I decided to take whatever steps were necessary to get to university. With no “O” or “A” Levels this wasn’t going to be easy, but I got there by first spending a year at a residential adult education college in Birmingham. It was the most productive year of my life, and one of the happiest.
After three years at the University of Bradford, I returned to Birmingham and started a teacher training course in Secondary English. But on placement I found I had insufficient passion for teaching, and found it unbearably frustrating.
My next move was to study for an MA with the Open University. The idea was to return to university as an academic and stay there. I realised this wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I imagined, so decided to become a careers adviser. I went back to Birmingham to take a one-year diploma.
What followed was probably my biggest career mistake of my life: I let my cab licence lapse as I didn’t think I’d need it again.
With my careers diploma, and most of my MA completed, I moved to Northampton to become a careers adviser. This was OK at first, but when the government de-professionalised, then dismantled, the careers service, the job changed and I lost motivation. I started to reflect more on my old life as a cab driver. Was it really that bad?
Thoroughly disaffected and de-motivated, I’d built up a colourful disciplinary record. With the writing on the wall, I found myself posting off an application to go back on the Knowledge. I hadn’t driven a cab for eleven years.
I started the Knowledge again, driving seventy miles into London. I did it by car, just one day per week. I reckoned it would take me two years. After four months I received a letter from TfL that I kept re-reading: I’d been offered a re-test on 2nd July 2010.
The Examiner had a calm, kindly, demeanour, and he put me at my ease immediately. But it was the toughest Appearance of my life: not just the six mile limit, but suburbs too (I originally passed the Knowledge in 1988 and had neither physically nor metaphysically visited many of these places since then). Points asked weren’t the major ones that I was expecting – I thought it would be all train stations and big hotels (I was never a Points man, even when I became an Examiner myself).
I felt like I was in there for an hour, though it was probably less. Eventually, he asked if I’d been asked enough. Yes, I certainly had, though I reckon I only got about 40% of his questions right. Amazingly, he congratulated me on my hard work and said I could make a coffee while I waited for my badge!
I later discovered that my “Super” Examiner was known as an East London End specialist. I only found this out when, in a surreal twist of fate, I was privileged to become an Examiner myself thirteen months’ later. Although I was working alongside my old Examiner as an equal I always regarded him with awe, and always fought the compulsion to call him “Sir”.
I left a month before my eight-month contract was up. It was a fantastic job, but my body never got used to getting up at 4.30am and travelling seventy miles. I’d just bought a new cab and had to work weekends as well. I was permanently tired, and I dreamt about the Knowledge every night. I never did get the hang of the drinks machine either.
I was 26 when I got my first cab licence in 1988. Getting it back in 2010, I was more appreciative. I valued it more. I was my own boss again, and I valued having my freedom back . It’s telling that I have photos of me around the house in my cab, but none of me as a careers adviser, or a student teacher.
Driving a cab can provide a good living if you put the hours in. It’s very flexible and pretty secure, if you don’t do anything silly. For me, it represents the freedom that I didn’t fully appreciate at 26. After several years’ disillusionment with the professional world, it made me realise that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
The teachers at my Essex comprehensive would have laughed at the idea of me going to university, but once I completed the Knowledge I knew I could do anything. Passing the Knowledge was harder than both my degrees put together, and remains the hardest thing I’ve ever studied. So when you get that badge – hang on to it!
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, October 2013.