Inject a little reality;Subject of the week;Economics and business

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
Separating economic fact from fantasy will guarantee a healthy future for the subject. Caroline Loewenstein dispels some myths

It's the economy, stupid," was how United States presidential candidate Bill Clinton summed up the overwhelming concern of the US electorate to his rival, George Bush, in 1992. And opinion polls on this side of the pond show that British voters attach similar importance to economic matters in deciding which way to vote.

But most of the United Kingdom's voters have received little or no economics education, and the numbers studying economics at sixth-form have been falling in recent years. Many people, then, seem to enter the polling booth with a limited understanding of what they consider the most important issues.

Economics is also the only subject that emphasises the role of individuals as consumers and producers, but few are taught about this vital part of what ought to be general education. Things should be about to change, however. The restructuring of the 16-19 curriculum gives economics teachers a wonderful opportunity to reach more students. But first they will have to dispel a few myths:

* Myth one: economics is highly theoretical and nothing much to do with the real world.

Nowadays economics at AS-level and A-level is all about current economic affairs. The theory is still there but today's examinations test students' ability to use the theory to make sense of current issues such as the Euro, the crisis in East Asia and how health care should be provided. Studying economics will change the way a student looks at the news.

* Myth two: it involves a substantial amount of maths.

At degree level this is certainly often the case, but at A and AS-level students need no more than a reasonable level of numeracy. Students are asked to analyse economic data, interpret graphs and tables, and identify trends, all well within the grasp of someone with grade C in GCSE maths. Economics at this level is no more, and probably less, mathematical than geography or business studies.

* Myth three: economics is a difficult A-level.

No subject at this level is easy, and evidence from the A-Level Information System based at Durham University suggests economics is not especially hard compared with other A-levels.

* Myth four: economics can only be taught using dry, old-fashioned teaching methods.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The subject lends itself to a wide variety of learning experiences including simulations, debates, role-plays, field trips and using the Internet.

The increase in subjects students will study in Year 12 gives economics teachers an opportunity to increase the number of young people taking their subject. If economics has been removed from the timetable in your school or college, this is the time to get it put back. The new AS exams should increase the numbers taking the subject in Year 12. It is then up to the teacher to ensure many become hooked and carry on to A-level.

Caroline Loewenstein is head of economics at Strode's College, Egham, Surrey

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