Caroline Loewenstein reports on the recent economicy literacy meeting run by Economy.

On the 8th October 2018 about 80 people met at The Chartered  Accountants Hall in the City of London for the economic literacy Summit 2018 run by “Economy”. The speakers included Andy Haldane (Chief Economist at the Bank of England), Rachel Reeves MP (Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee), Steve Frampton MBE (President of the Association of Colleges), Jonathan Baggeley (Chief Executive PSHE Association) and Liz Moore (Chief Executive of the Association for Citizenship Teaching). Professional economics teachers appeared to be notable by their absence.

“Economy” is an offshoot of “Rethinking Economics” which is an organisation (originally led by students) that seeks to broaden the economics education experience of students studying economics at university. It argues that even at university level many students are taught neo-classical theory as though it is fact and that critical thought is not encouraged in classes or in the examination system. Students involved in the movement also felt that their courses paid scant attention to modern economic issues, such as the causes of the financial crash, inequality and poverty. They argued that their courses were instead dominated by the use of highly complex mathematical models with little attention being given to the validity of the often dubious assumptions underpinning them. “Economy” is  also concerned that the general lack of understanding of economics in the population as a whole is undermining democracy and is also damaging individuals’ ability to reach their full potential.

We must all have experienced watching television news and seeing people interviewed on the street giving their opinions on economic issues with clearly no real understanding of either the issue or the fact that their ability to discuss it is very limited. There are clearly many other people who are only too aware that they have no or little understanding of economics and see it as something inaccessible and of no real relevance to themselves. We have also all heard, with feelings of great frustration, politicians coming up with phrases such as “government budgets are just like household budgets” and the “UK is still the fifth richest in the world” and then hearing them repeated again and again because people are not equipped to think about such statements critically and politicians can therefore use them to gain popularity. The organisation “Economy” exists in order to tackle the problem of economic illiteracy and to equip as many people as possible with a basic understanding of economics and the tools that they need to critically examine the messages that they get through social and other media. More specifically their aims include enabling people to:

  • Question economic data and the way politicians and the media discuss economic issues
  • See how different groups in society (for example racial, socio-economic, gender) are affected differently by economic policies and how membership of such groups affects an individual’s opportunities in an economy
  • Identify ways in which they can, as individuals or as part of groups, influence the economy.
  • Some research has been carried out to support and inform the organisation’s endeavours. The findings include:
  • 39% of respondents felt that they could define “GDP” and 30% “quantitative easing”. (Those who have experience of teaching economics are likely to think that the proportion of the population who can actually define these terms is somewhat lower).
  • 60% identify as having had no economics education. (This means that 40% have had some economics education which seems a surprisingly high figure).
  • Those without an economics education see economists as people who are disconnected from reality and therefore do not trust economists
  • 75% think that economics education should be included in the school curriculum.
  • Only 12% of adults think that the media and politicians talk about economics in a way that is understandable.

“Economy” has so far sought to achieve its aims through putting materials on its website, providing crash courses in economics and working with schools to increase the economics content of the curriculum.

On the website (www.ecnmy.org) there is a constantly increasing number of articles that seek to explain headline economic issues and make them comprehensible to all. The articles are on a wide variety of topics, for example “China and America’s trade war just got even bigger”, “What we know about a no-deal Brexit” and “The government deficit is lower than it’s been in a long time. Is this good news?”.

So far four pilot crash courses in economics have been run. The courses are six to ten sessions long, each session lasting two hours. The courses consist of a mixture of individual and group activities, discussion topics and visual materials. All materials aim to be relevant to the participants and use jargon free language. The idea is to enable participants to appreciate how a knowledge of economics can be applied to their daily lives. During the day we heard from two facilitators and two participants of these crash courses and it was clear that the courses had been delivered using a variety of engaging group activities that were designed to raise awareness of economic issues and the impact they may have on individuals and society as a whole.

“Economy” has worked in schools with children and young people from a wide range of age groups from 4 year olds to year 12 students. Some of this work has formed part of the research into how people feel about economics and some of it has involved delivering courses over an eight week period to year 8 and year 12 students in two schools. A 12 week extra-curricular programme has also been developed for year 9 and year 12 students. The hope is that by giving year 9 students an interest in the subject, more of them will choose to study economics at GCSE and during the day we met some year 10 students who had chosen to do this. Most state schools, however, do not offer economics at this level and with the current constraints facing them at the moment it seems unlikely that this situation will change significantly in the near future.

“Economy” is also working towards increasing the economics content of Citizenship and PSHE courses. Currently the main emphasis of the economics part of many PSHE courses is financial literacy. There is no intention of replacing this but rather broadening what is offered to include the skills that students need to understand their own roles within the economy and to critically assess economic statements that they encounter through social and other media.

The aims of “economy” are ambitious and the amount that it has achieved since it was first established in 2015 is impressive. There does not appear to be, however, much hard evidence of the degree to which participants understanding and skills have actually improved; most of the evidence appears to be just the opinions of the participants on their own progress. The use of the materials in the classroom is also probably limited if they are not being delivered by a professional economics educator. Another problem is that to actually achieve a significant increase in economic literacy in schools, let alone in the population as a whole, is likely to be difficult in today’s cash-strapped education system. It is also a matter of priorities both in schools and for government education policy. Schools believe economic and financial education is important but do not see it as a priority among competing demands on curriculum time and resources. The government has again failed to make the E in PSHE statutory. The current Ofsted framework does not even look at personal development as a whole, let alone economic and financial literacy (although the current HMCI gives some hope that the emphasis may be shifting away from the domination of examination performance to wider measures of achievement and preparing young people for life).

However, the more of us who share the vision of an economically literate population and are willing to contribute to the cause, the more likely it is to actually come about. A valuable contribution could clearly be made by teachers with substantial experience of teaching economics in schools. Opportunities for contributing can be found on www.ecnmy.org.

Sources and further reading

www.ecnmy.org

www.rethinkeconomics.org      

Fischer, L. and Hasell,J. (2017) Rethinking Economics. Routledge.

Earle, J., Moran,C. and Ward-Perkins, Z. (2017) The Econonocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts. Penguin.

Caroline Loewenstein is the former Head of Economics at Strode’s College, Egham.