Consuming passions

21st April 1995 at 01:00
Economics at GCSE is rapidly losing ground due to the increasing popularity of business studies courses. Adrian Lyons believes it should be given a clearer identity, with the emphasis on the consumer

Ten years ago, I would have been horrified at the thought of teaching business studies. I came into teaching to inculcate a questioning approach in young people and my measure of success (if measurable) would have been whether I could persuade someone not to read the Sun. Ten years on, I was caught up with following the consumer demand for business studies at A-level, GCSE and GNVQ, teaching basic accounting, the role of the personnel department and business communications. This article is not an attempt to analyse how we got into this situation, but to suggest a response to it.

Figures showing the rapid decline in entries for economics at A-level in recent years give some cause for concern, but they are insignificant compared with the decline at GCSE. Entries for GCSE economics fell from approximately 30,000 in 1989 to less than 17,000 in 1993, while entries for GCSE business studies rose from approximately 28,000 to nearly 100,000 in the same period (The Bulletin, EBEA Journal, autumn 1993).

This decline has been observed with acceptance by economics teachers, who have perhaps reluctantly but with resignation, redefined themselves as teachers of "business education". Indeed, in my own case, after three happy years as a head of economics I moved to a new school with more staff and a higher allowance to head a business education department. I then presided over a massive increase in business studies numbers.

As can be seen from the quoted figures, a common approach has been to abandon economics at GCSE. The increasing pressure on schools through exam league tables may well exacerbate this, as GCSE economics does not seem to be a grade maximising subject. I believe this is because GCSE economics presents pupils very early in the course with a solid wall of off-putting diagrams (supply and demand). While demonstrating an idea so simple as to be over simplified, such diagrams present 14-year-olds who may only have chosen the subject because of difficulties with other subjects with confirmation that they do not understand this alien creature called economics.

At A-level, where the demise of economics has been measurable, but not nearly as serious as at GCSE, a response has been the Nuffield Economics and Business Studies Project. The Nuffield course, which I have taught, seeks to "integrate economics and business studies wherever both subjects address similar issues . . . appropriate tools of analysis from both domains are used to generate penetrating insights" (Wall et al, Economics 1992, No 120). I wholeheartedly support both the aims and approach of the Nuffield Project. Teaching the course for its first term I found that it a great improvement on pre-existing courses in both economics and business studies; not least because syllabus coverage is hierarchical and progressive. But I would suggest that it need not be the only approach.

The Winter 1994 edition of the Economics and Business Education Association's Bulletin reveals that the EBEA has "identified Key Stage 4 GNVQ business as its highest priority". It goes on to report that the Chair of Education is "exploring the possibility of a joint economics and business course for this age group". This is an approach that I welcome and it is indeed something that I was beginning to explore before the Key Stage 4 Working Group was split into separate groups for economics and business studies. My school experience suggests that within the existing framework more able economics pupils can quite easily pick up a good grade in GCSE business studies with minimal additional effort to their economics studies. The reverse is not true.

In the light of this onslaught by business studies perhaps it is time for economics, particularly at key stage 4, to bow out gracefully. After all, business studies asks questions and develops understanding, while allowing pupils to be successful without involving too much mental gymnastics. I fear this may be the case but I hope not.

It has been argued that the study of economics is the study of the theory of choice. Therefore the difference between economics and business studies is that although they cover the same ground, "Economics starts with individual concepts, such as theory of demand, price formation, price elasticity, income elasticity, and integrates them into a total system. Business, on the other hand, starts with the total system - the operation of a company - and works down to the individual concepts such as price formation, price and income elasticity, the demand function" (Brech, Economics and Business Education Winter 1994).

While the above may provide a neat distinction for practitioners within the subjects, I have found the distinction to be rather more problematic at Year 9 options evenings, and in discussion with Year 9 pupils who really want to know which will be easier than geography, or which one will Mr Lyons not be teaching? I fear the answer to the first question is obvious, while unfortunately the answer to the second might be "both!" On reflection, it is apparent that many wasted hours have been spent attempting to clarify the differences between economics and business studies at key stage 4. More appropriate responses would have been: "If you want to stand any chance of passing, opt for business studies"; "only take economics if you want to be very bored for the next two years"; or in very exceptional cases: "You're a very intelligent pupil with a keen interest in the world and society. You might get bored with business studies, so go for economics" It seems everything I say reinforces the case for the abandonment of economics at GCSE. The product is dry, dull, delivered in a boring manner, perceived to be of little relevance to its consumers, and a mini version of the top of the range product. Demand for it is in long term decline, and attempts at repackaging, (through new criteria), have had no impact. A rival product - business studies - is delivering to the consumer an alternative that is clear, attractive, often delivered in an interesting and well-resourced manner, and is perceived to be advantageous in the job market.

I suggest that there is one alternative to giving up on the product: that is to clearly differentiate it from its rival. If the essence of economics is choice, then there are a variety of contexts in which to study choice. The Economics Association's 14-16 Project gave us the contexts of the "Young Person as Consumer, Producer, and Citizen". The introduction of GCSE saw syllabuses being developed within this framework, one which was appropriate for the early 1980s. At that time high levels of unemployment were still a relatively new phenomenon; and, most importantly, business studies was embryonic.

Since that time, structural changes in the economy have meant that an ever diminishing proportion of the population is involved in "production", and the wide availability of business studies courses covers detailed study of this area. However everyone, including 14, 15 and 16-year-olds is a consumer and citizen.

I would argue that this is not merely a problem of finding a new market niche in response to falling consumer demand. Hodkinson worried about industry and business being "in recent years the principal focus for extending pupils' experience of the economy" (Economics and Business Education, Spring 1994). Admittedly he is writing about the "I" being dominant over the "E" in Economic and Industrial Understanding, but he makes a general call for an increase in the "consumer perspective".

Articles highlighting the male domination of the subject have appeared in recent economic journals and this was a major theme of the 1994 Association for European Economics Education Conference in Athens. It has often been assumed that neo-classical economics is gender-neutral, but of course it is built on assumptions which render it far from neutral in relation to gender or any issue. There is a growing body of "feminist economics" that provides new insights on the economic world.

But I am not suggesting a search for a new feminist paradigm for GCSE economics, rather that the power and critical awareness that comes from good economics teaching is made accessible and relevant to the 14 to 16 age group through a new emphasis. We are all citizens, but while 14 to 16-year-olds need to be made aware that they are indirect tax payers, and that government spending decisions affect their lives, many citizenship issues appear remote. There are certainly ways of addressing these areas, and they should not be ignored, but the key to unlocking the world of economics is the "consumer".

Adrian Lyons is senior lecturer in business education at the University of Brighton.

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