Gwen Coates on signs that teachers are trying to boost results by shopping around examination boards
The suspicion that the introduction of school performance tables has encouraged teachers to "shop around" for new syllabuses that might yield better results seems to have been confirmed by research from Staffordshire University.
Alain Anderton, Steve Hurd and myself surveyed more than 500 heads of economics and business studies departments to find why they were switching between A-level economics and A-level business studies syllabuses.
Entries for A-level economics have fallen by 55 per cent since l990 - to slightly more than 20,000 in summer 1997. And there has been an equally dramatic increase in entries for A-level business studies (152 per cent since l990) to more than 33,000 entries in summer 1997.
Our findings suggest that the extent of switching taking place both between these two subjects and, between examining boards within the same subject, increased significantly when league tables were introduced in 1993.
During the 1980s, approximately 2 to 3 per cent of schools and colleges changed their syllabus in any one year. Between l990 and 1993, as the debate on school standards escalated, that proportion doubled to around 7 per cent. After 1993 there was a further doubling, with between 14 per cent and 19 per cent changing syllabus each year between 1994 and 1996.
There was a return to relative stability last year, although this is probably due to the uncertainty over the Dearing Review of 16-19 qualifications. Teachers have perhaps been biding their time to avoid making changes that might have to be repeated if the A-level system is reformed.
Our research reveals that 41 per cent of moves were from one economics syllabus to another, 27 per cent being moves from one business studies syllabus to another.
Contrary to the popular perception that candidates are shifting out of economics and into business studies, only 17 per cent of moves were in this direction. However, this steady trickle has, over a few years, transformed the relative position of economics and business studies in the sixth-form curriculum. None of the centres surveyed moved from business studies to economics.
Detailed discussions with teachers suggest that several factors can affect syllabus choice. The ability of a syllabus to attract students is likely to be important to many schools. Perceptions of difficulty come into the equation, but teachers discriminate according to whether a course is mathematically demanding or theoretically abstract.
Both teachers and students seem to be looking for courses which are more relevant to the real world and intrinsically interesting. Mode of assessment is also important. Many students, from their experience of GCSE, have developed very positive attitudes towards coursework assessment. It gives students and teachers more control of the assessment process. Coursework also provides opportunities to develop skills which are relevant to the workplace and to higher education, such as problem-solving and word-processing - neither of which is included in A-level economics courses.
Teachers' choice is also influenced by the availability of in-service training and support material from exam boards.
The implications of this increased "shopping around" are extensive. On the positive side, if it is well-informed and leads to students doing more interesting and more relevant courses, it is likely to improve candidates' performance. It is also likely to put pressure on examining boards to become more "teacher friendly" in terms of the information and support they offer.
However, there is a danger that teachers are switching to syllabuses that are perceived to be easier without necessarily taking into consideration the educational value of a syllabus.
Another drawback is that new courses usually require additional resources and huge amounts of preparation time for teachers. Such costs are borne by the teacher and the school - at a time when funding is being stretched to the limits and teachers' workloads are increasing significantly.
A full report of the research is available from Gwen Coates, Centre for Economics and Business Education, Business School, Staffordshire University, Leek Road, Stoke-on-Trent ST4 2DF, price pound;15.