First tide of a sea change

21st April 1995 at 01:00
Peter Maunder and Nancy Wall on the significance of the new and revised A- level economics syllabuses

The official syllabus content for economics has hardly changed since A-levels began. Sometimes examiners extended the range of questions to include issues of current importance. For example, monetarism crept in when it was central to the policy debate. Later, some boards began to include an occasional question touching on environmental issues. In this way the changing world was accommodated by degrees, while the underlying framework of all courses remained as it had been for 20 years.

September 1994 marked a sea-change in the teaching of economics in England and Wales. Three new syllabuses were introduced: London (linear), London (Nuffield) and Cambridge (modular), for first examination in 1996. Six further syllabuses will be available from September this year. They are being introduced by the AEB, Cambridge (linear), NEAB, Oxford, Oxford and Cambridge and the Welsh Joint Education Committee.

Meanwhile two major curriculum development projects have been at work. One is the Economics and Business Education Association's 16-19 Project, which has sought to overhaul completely the course content and the teaching styles. The other is the Nuffield Economics and Business Project, which breaks new ground in combining the study of economics and business.

This radical shake-up has taken place within the framework created by the new School Curriculum and Assessment Authority subject core. Issued in late 1993, the core was designed to cover about one half of an A-level syllabus, leaving exam boards to develop the rest of the syllabus. Two pages of the SCAA core focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the market economy together with an understanding of the problem of market failures. Macroeconomics, international trade and the labour market provide just one page, showing the priority to be ensuring students understand how people make decisions in predominantly market economics worldwide. Emphasis is placed on the skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation which students of economics need to deploy in applying concepts and theories to issues.

In sum, the theory requirement for A-level economics has been made less extensive. SCAA effectively challenged the existing encyclopedic and over theoretical syllabuses and their heavy reliance on multiple choice examinations.

Those boards which have not dispensed with multiple choice papers have reduced the weighting given to them. "New" assessment methods include some form of extended study (AEB, Cambridge (modular), London (linear), Oxford and Oxford and Cambridge) and also coursework (AEB, London (Nuffield) and Oxford). Both AEB and Oxford are offering unemployment as a case study. OC is introducing a Special Subject paper containing 12 topics. London is including a stimulus question in both areas of optional study. Cambridge (modular) includes a case study as part of its key module, Market System and Market Failure. Three boards - NEAB, Cambridge (linear) and WJEC - have reaffirmed their belief in the traditional mix of essay, multiple choice and data response papers. Thus the seven examination boards will now be offering a rather different mix of examination assessment than has been available before .

The boards have responded in widely different ways. For London change was already under way in 1993, with the Nuffield course under construction, and changes in the linear course awaiting publication of the new core. This made it possible to reduce the emphasis on the geometry of the firm and to replace the traditional Keynesian theory with an approach based on aggregate demand and aggregate supply. AEB has adopted a rather similar approach in relation to theory content. It has added a highly explicit requirement to include an environmental perspective overall and to develop a strong awareness of the European Union.

Another significant change is the appearance of modular syllabuses from both Cambridge and Oxford though some teachers remain anxious about whether "the dismal science" lends itself to discrete blocks of study at this level. Cambridge is offering in its modular scheme a considerable innovative expansion of subject content beyond the SCAA core. The six modules (three to be chosen) include Financial Economics, Transport Economics and the Economics of the Labour Market. This approach can be contrasted with that of London (linear) where there is the choice of one of two options, Development Economics and Product and Labour Markets. All the boards have reduced expectations in relation to descriptive aspects of the financial markets. NEAB and OC have made changes in how their syllabuses are specified, but are expecting to ask questions broadly similar to those asked in the past.

The EBEA's 16-19 Project sought to redefine the nature of the subject at this level. However, rather than create a new syllabus, its objective was to influence all the six syllabuses being introduced in September 1995. It has produced a major new text, Core Economics, which embodies the change of classroom style, epitomised in the key idea of "economic thoughtfulness". It shows how important concepts developed by the project as a central part of economics for the 21st century - its own defining framework - may be taught effectively.

The Nuffield Economics and Business Project offers a joint subject A-level; alternatively students may opt for a single subject approach, following economics or business. A series of 11 titles show how the two subjects can be integrated effectively. They give teachers a wide range of strategies to help them adapt their teaching styles to a more investigative approach. The student's capacity for independent research is assessed via the coursework Portfolio, which allows students to follow their own interests while studying issues and decisions to which they must apply the fundamental concepts they have learned.

Resource requirements for the new or revised courses need not be daunting. Existing textbooks will often be adaptable, especially if the books produced within the two curriculum development projects can be used for additional stimulus.

In the new market environment beginning this autumn boards which have been well established in some centres will find their monopoly under threat. The very presence of varied syllabus offerings is encouraging a fresh look at the competitive alternatives. It is possible that the various changes made will do something to stem the fall in the number of students opting for economics.

Peter Maunder is senior lecturer Loughborough University and chief examiner, London Examinations; Nancy Wall is co-director of Nuffield Economics and Business Project.

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