There have been many attempts over the last 25 years to make economics education more accessible for all students aged 5-18. Most could point to at least some partial success but this has not been effectively sustained and built upon. In the main, each new initiative has failed to learn from the lessons of the previous ones. The result is that the weaknesses in the provision for economic understanding that were identified in reports by HMI as early as the 1970s are still very much in evidence today. Arguably, there has never been a more important time for economic education to be part of the core curriculum for all young people and yet it seems that it is as far off being achieved now as it has been in the last decade.  The following article traces some of the key initiatives to promote economic understanding for all over the last 25 years and to draw some lessons from them.

The Economics Association’s 14-16 project circa 1983-7

Following Her Majesty’s Inspectors of schools (HMI) reports in the 1970s and 80s that identified a lack of basic economic understanding amongst secondary aged pupils, the Economics Association (the predecessor of the EBEA) secured substantial funding from the Esmee Fairburn Trust for a major project to develop and disseminate exemplar resources to promote economic understanding amongst 14-16 year olds. The project was based at Manchester University and developed resources around the three themes of the young person as consumer, producer and citizen.  The resources were rigorously trailed, evaluated and modified before being disseminated more widely through a network of economics teachers who were seconded for a few days a month, often supported by funding through the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI). The approach adopted in the resources was to introduce some basic economic ideas through stimulus material but without using the formal tools of economic analysis.

Impact   The materials were well received and were eventually published by Longmans.  HMI praised the project and found evidence of gains in pupils’ economic understanding.  The project did much to develop thinking about how basic economic understanding for younger students might be developed and elements of these materials can still be found today.  However, with the demise of TVEI and other funding streams, it became difficult to sustain the teacher networks and the promotion of economic understanding became dependent on the enthusiasm of individual teachers who had conceivably increased in numbers because of the project.

Economic Awareness Teacher Training (EcATT) initiative  circa 1986-90

EcATT  was based initially at the University of Manchester education department and at the London Institute of Education . These centres provided training for seconded Local Education Authority (LEA) advisers and advisory teachers who then worked with schools in their own authorities. The initiative spanned the age range and was supported through LEA funding and funding for teacher training. The emphasis of the initiative was on developing a methodology for economic awareness, rather than resources, although some of the exemplar materials became very well known. The ‘Ecatt methodology’ was rooted in learning theory expounded by Bruner and others, rather than trying to teach non-specialist teachers economic theory.  Their approach was to challenge teachers’ perceptions and values of economic phenomenon as a way of progressing their thinking and understanding.  Teachers then replicated this approach with their pupils. A good example of this, that became widely adopted, was the use of a photo of a boy in Africa outside of his hut which was used to elicit responses from teachers/pupils. These responses were predictably on the lines of ‘poor’,’ uneducated’, ‘hungry’, ‘unhappy’ etc (even though there was no evidence to support these  perceptions in the photo).  After discussion and encouraging teachers/pupils to challenge these perceptions, a second photo of an over- weight, middle aged, white male tucking into two plates of chips was introduced.  This was used to challenge the initial perceptions of the boy in Africa (who was not under nourished,  led an enjoyable life and eventually went on to become a doctor!).

Impact  EcATT did a great deal to develop thinking about how economic awareness might be promoted and to fundamentally challenge the traditional approach adopted in teaching exam courses in schools. It also helped to develop some valuable work in promoting thinking about economic ideas through the core curriculum. However, specialist economics teachers, possibly even more than none specialists, often found it difficult to accept a methodology that did not attempt to teach traditional economic theory. Teachers were often uncomfortable with having their views challenged as part of EcATT inset sessions and did not always have the skills to adopt the ‘EcATT’ approach in the classroom (they were often afraid of losing  control and encountering behavioural problems).  It required a fundamental shift for many teachers away from imparting a body of knowledge to challenging students’ perceptions and encouraging them to challenge each other.   As funding dried up, so did the initiative, which failed to be self-sustaining. The advent of the National Curriculum shifted the focus to core subjects and marginalised other learning. EcATT was perhaps too ambitious in its aspirations, nevertheless  the thinking behind its methodology was fundamentally sound and should not be forgotten.  It also gave rise to the Association’s 16-19 economics project with its emphasis on ‘economic thoughtfulness’.  This again challenged traditional thinking about the content and methodological approach to the subject. It resulted in a book but it is difficult to discern much impact on A level examination courses where the only really radical departure was in those stemming from the Nuffield Project work.

The National Curriculum 1989  

One of the overarching aims of the National Curriculum (NC) was to prepare pupils effectively for adult life but it soon became apparent that the emphasis on individual subjects in the NC left insufficient time to support this aim. The government’s solution was to introduce five cross-curricular themes, one of which was Economic and Industrial Understanding (EIU).   However, the programmes of study for the themes were only advisory and were never made statutory. The intention was that the cross-curricular themes to be taught through the programmes of study for the national curriculum subjects against which they were mapped.  The programme of study for EIU was a traditional mix of economic and business knowledge and concepts.

Impact  Cross-curricular approaches have a poor track record of success, particularly in secondary schools and EIU was no exception to this. Ofsted surveys continued to find the provision for economic understanding to be very patchy in terms of both its coverage and quality. There was some training for teachers in the implementation of the cross-curricular themes but the task was enormous and unrealistic as it effectively meant training every teacher in all of the themes. The themes were seen by many secondary teachers as an unnecessary and artificial addition to already over-burdened programmes of study.  There was no compulsion to teach the themes in a cross-curricular way but, as they were not statutory and because they did not feature significantly in the Ofsted inspection framework, there was little incentive for schools to allocate separate curriculum time to them.

Enterprise education for all 2002-8  

Enterprise education in terms of pupils undertaken ‘real’ business activities has its roots in the US Junior Leadership Programme and in elementary schools through Marilyn Kourilsky’s mini society project. It was introduced in the UK in the 1960s, mainly in sixth forms. Enterprise education in its broader sense first secured government funding following the Howard Davies Review, Enterprise and the economy in education (2002). The review defined enterprise education as developing pupils’ enterprise capabilities (skills), financial understanding and economic and business understanding.  Funding was significant (for example, £60m in each year from 2005-8) and sustained.  A substantial proportion of funding went directly to schools and a considerable amount was invested in training programmes. In 2002 business and enterprise (B&E) was introduced as a secondary school specialism and by 2007 the number of school with a B&E specialism had grown to over 270. The specialisms attracted additional funding for enterprise education. In the latter stages of the enterprise initiative, a network of enterprise ‘hubs’ was established in each local authority, often based around the more successful B&E schools, and encompassing primary schools.  A parallel development from 2004 was the Government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda that included ‘economic well being’ as a key strand and was reflected in the Ofsted inspection framework.

Impact    A great deal of very exciting and innovative work took place under the government’s enterprise initiative, although Ofsted found that the economics component was the least well developed aspect of the work. In the cutting edge B&E schools enterprise education permeated the curriculum and all pupils took a economics or businesses related qualification at Key Stage 4, with a high take up post-16. However, economics education often failed to build on the thinking developed through earlier initiatives and resorted to traditional approaches.  When funding ceased for enterprise education in 2010 and economic well-being ceased to be part of the Ofsted framework in 2011 enterprise education not surprisingly declined.  Lord Young’s report ‘Enterprise for all’ (2014) partially triggered the Ofsted report ‘Getting ready for work’ (November 2016) which once again found the provision for economic and business understanding to be patchy and of very variable quality. Some privately funded initiatives, such as Young Enterprise remain and every now and again new initiatives promoting economic education for all come along. The latest of these is the work of the Ecnmy group ( – a spin off from the Rethinking Economics movement in the university sector.  However, strong provision for economic understanding for all pupils still remains very much the exception in schools in England.

Some reflections on the current position

The current educational climate is not conducive to the promotion of economic understanding for all. Schools are being increasingly judged on their delivery of the Ebacc and in attainment 8 and progress 8 measures  . The Ofsted inspection framework does little to incentivise schools to make provision for preparing young people for adult life, other than through achievement in the core subjects. While numbers taking GCSE economics have been growing in recent years, they remain small overall. The recent reform of GCSE economics to be introduced in September 2017 is disappointedly a watered down version of traditional A level, and does not attempt to provide a course in economic understanding that might be attractive to a wide range of pupils. Any attempts by the awarding bodies to introduce an element of personal economics into the course were strongly rejected by the DfE and aspects of economics were removed from the new GCSE business course.

All this paints rather a gloomy picture. However, pockets of excellent practice remain both in primary and secondary schools, driven by enthusiastic teachers and headteachers who believe passionately that economic understanding is a key part of preparing young people to be effective consumers, producers and citizens. They generally work in isolation from others of a similar mindset. The Ofsted report ‘Getting ready for work’, which was commissioned by the Chief Inspector, perhaps indicates a possible change of direction in future inspections to include more emphasis on how young people are prepared for their futures . Kenneth Baker, who introduced the first National Curriculum, is campaigning through the Edge Foundation for a broader Ebacc and there may be scope to include economic and business related subjects. There is a strong campaign for personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education to become statutory in all schools. If this becomes reality it is important that the economic component is seen as being much more than simply financial education, that it builds on sound methodology and is supported with high quality training and resources for teachers and pupils. Developments in English education tend to go in cycles and there is some evidence from recent announcements, for example, by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former Chief Inspector, that emphasise that there should be a great deal more to education than just examination results in a narrow range of subjects. So perhaps the tide is already starting to turn.   Whatever happens it is important for all our futures to keep the current flickering light of economic understanding for all burning as brightly as possible!

(This article first appeared in Teaching Business and Economics, EBEA, Summer 2017)

David Butler Chair of Advocacy, EBEA   January 2017