Knowledge is Power
(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).
I hear that Conservatives on the Greater London Assembly are calling for the Knowledge to be scrapped in its present form. Assembly member, Richard Tracey, mentions an ageing workforce, with the Knowledge standing as a barrier to future drivers. The report also argues that the Knowledge is obsolete in the age of GPS.
As an ex-Knowledge examiner I take a particular interest in the subject, and I neither think the Knowledge is obsolete, nor deterring people from entry to the trade. Unite Cab Section’s Peter Rose countered that the Knowledge isn’t a barrier, “it’s a qualification for the job.” Quite right. I’ve heard no calls for doctors’ training being made easier as it’s putting applicants off. As far as I know, doctors still need an immense knowledge of medicine, even though their patients can self-diagnose on a computer, and the doctors themselves can brush up their knowledge on the web.
In the case of cab drivers, doctors, and other professionals, their qualifications on entry provide a minimum competence to do the job. In our case, we know we don’t know it all when we gain our licence, but we have a sound basis on which to build our competence. The Knowledge isn’t a barrier; it’s a hurdle, or a series of hurdles, that have to be successfully jumped.
The Knowledge is extremely hard work, but unlike other qualifications, it doesn’t have to be fitted into a set period of time like a degree course. You can take as long as you want. It’s possibly the most democratic form of occupational training known to man. As the fictional examiner, Mr Burgess, says in the wonderful film, The Knowledge, it’s not about who you know, it’s about what you know. Every applicant is on an equal footing; whether you start the Knowledge with a degree under your belt, or whether you earned a dishonourable discharge from a sink comprehensive. You don’t need to sweat while your initial application is pondered over by a college admissions tutor, and you don’t have to convince anyone of your cleverness before acceptance. You just need to have kept your nose fairly clean, and show the ability to identify some points on a map. And I’m not diminishing the achievement of passing the map test. I marked a few map tests as an examiner, and I wouldn’t feel that blasé if I had to pass one now.
Many more people start the Knowledge than complete it, that’s true, but every successful Knowledge Boy knows the maxim that “you can’t fail the Knowledge, you can only give it up.” Some people are better than the Knowledge than others, but even the weaker candidates are rewarded if they believe in themselves and stick at it. From the outset, you know the Knowledge is difficult. Very difficult. What Richard Tracey doesn’t realise is that the satisfaction comes from knowing it’s very difficult. If it was easy it wouldn’t mean so much. The one thing that all Knowledge candidates have is pride. It’s a big achievement when they “score” at an Appearance, and a massive one when they get their Req. When they attend their Finals talk and are presented with their badge they know they have achieved something monumental.
Those who would remove, or weaken, the Knowledge, would presumably be content to accept a taxi service where the driver relies on GPS. On gaining your badge, you know more than any other new cab driver in any city around the world. You also have the ability to beat the sat nav. The sat nav is woefully inadequate for use in a complex city like London. It can get you out of trouble, but it can’t handle the permutations of routes and road conditions that an experienced London driver has running through his blood. GPS can’t analyse like a human brain, and it can’t advise on the best roads to use at certain times of day. In these times of daily road closures and major diversions it is an inadequate tool to find you way around with.
The public would surely prefer their drivers to be trained to current standard, and I believe so would the drivers of the future. The drivers are proud of their status. A status that comes from knowing they are the best trained cab drivers in the world.
Would I change the Knowledge? I wouldn’t make the Knowledge easier, but I would abandon the cruel points system that heaps unnecessary pressure on the candidate. People shouldn’t be pegged back because of one or two bad Appearances. Is the map test necessary? In my day, you wouldn’t have an Appearance until you’d completed the Blue Book. I think this is too long a wait for a benchmark assessment, so I’d go back to the time where you were examined on the first section of the Blue Book and abandon the map test.
There’s been a small reduction in the number of Knowledge applicants, but by no means has everyone deserted the Knowledge and gone over to Uber. The taxi trade is still attractive enough to those who drive a mini-cab for a living. Many Knowledge candidates are private hire drivers. They initially took the easier option to do a similar job, so why would they put themselves through two or three years of hell for the green badge? They are best placed to compare the two trades. Do they know something others don’t?
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.