In search of a fresh angle;Subject of the week;Economics and Business

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Economics needs to reinvent itself if it is to survive, says David Lines

Amazingly, I can still remember how to bisect an angle using a compass and a ruler, even though more than 30 years have passed since I left school.

But I can't for the life of me recall why I ever learned to do it in the first place, other than to pass an exam. I still struggle to imagine a real-life scenario in which I am desperate to halve an angle and, lacking a protractor, have the good fortune to find a pair of compasses in my pocket.

Economists have been teaching the equivalent of bisecting angles for too long, and students have had enough. It's the turn of the century, post-modernism rules and concern over businesses' ethical position is far more interesting and relevant than whether they operate at the point where marginal cost equals marginal revenue.

For more than a decade, the journal of the Economics Association, now the Economics and Business Education Association, has been full of articles bemoaning the fate of the subject, increasingly irrelevant to young people and taught in a didactic, unexciting fashion. But what has happened as a result? Almost nothing.

Economists seem unable to follow their own theoretical prescriptions. They are keen to tell us that decreasing demand for a product forces it to change or leave the market. Well, economics in schools is facing what many regard as terminal decline. The subject has to change or die. But if it disappears from the curriculum the loss will be profound and the blame will lie with those who refuse to accept their own theories.

A few years ago the EBEA attempted a radical rethink of 16 to 19 economics, which it was pleased to call "new economics". Parts were indeed new. For instance, environmental matters received some attention. But overall the project was not radical and has not been a success.

This is partly because the policy decision to make no explicit connection with any single examination board and syllabus ignored a fundamental tenet of curriculum design in England and Wales - that if you want to change what goes on in classrooms, make sure the assessment regime enforces it.

And listening to the views of economists in universities and schools revealed a lack of consensus on fundamental change. It seems no two economists can agree on anything, so what chance of hundreds? In any case, university economists are themselves divided on the subject's future and are as frightened by falling admissions as their colleagues in schools are by shrinking teaching groups.

To be fair, the context in which any curriculum reformer operates is increasingly centralised and resistant to change. We live in a world where a national curriculum, subject criteria and cores are laid down by a single body - the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Subject cores at A-level are defined by committees, themselves selected by the QCA not deliberately but de facto on the basis of their commitment to the status quo - chief examiners of existing syllabuses, for example. If A-level is centrally defined, where is the room for fresh approaches?

In the past, coursework presented an opportunity for radical and innovative work, but now the proportion allowed in assessment is limited. Plodding didacticism is the inevitable result.

Added to this, the move towards reducing the number of exam boards and choice of syllabus will ossify the system further. The boards are already acting as our economic theory says they should. As oligopolists they are offering almost identical products at similar prices. Competition is still there but it manifests itself in other areas such as in-service, telephone helplines or even, dare one whisper it, proportions of A to C grades. Such an environment creates strong pressure to avoid rocking the boat by offering something new that might mean a loss of market share.

So, what's to be done? Some believe this is an impossible task, that the popularity of any subject that lacks a firm base in the 14 to 16 curriculum will inevitably fade. Others argue that business studies provides a way forward by asking questions that contain an underlying, implicit reference to economic theory but in a way that relates to the lives of young people. Another alternative is to combine economics with business studies, in modular form or as in the Edexel Nuffield course.

Certainly these ideas fit with the theory of change or die, but they all seem second-best options. It is time to cut the cord that has for so long bound school economics to university courses. We need to ask 16 to 19-year-olds what they want to aspire to at the end of a two-year course in economics, which for most will be their last formal encounter with the subject. That must surely be better than equipping them with theories which, like me, they may recall 30 years later but which have never been of any use to them.

David Lines is lecturer in business and economics and a member of the education, environment and economy group at London University's Institute of Education

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