In January 2018, Andy Haldane, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England invited 36 people to a roundtable meeting to discuss ‘Economics in Education’. The 36 included PSHE specialists, representatives from Ofsted, OCR and the RSA, the Department for Education (DfE), the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and a number of economists from the universities. I was representing the EBEA. Many came from the organisations that are trying to overhaul the teaching of degree-level economics. These include Professor Wendy Carlin at UCL (University College, London), who has set up the Core course; also Rethinking Economics, Promoting Economic Pluralism and the Cambridge Society for Economic Pluralism. Yet more came from the Economics Network at Bristol University, the Royal Economic Society (RES), the FT and several other organisations .
The focus was very wide-ranging:
• Teaching children about the economy and finance before age 16
• Improving access to, take‐up and content of economics courses for those aged 16‐18 and at university
• Ensuring that the schools and university economics curriculum delivers the right skills for the workplace
The coverage of PSHE at this meeting is addressed in David Butler’s article in this issue, ‘Putting the E into PSHE education’. This article draws attention to some current developments in economics education and some possible outcomes which may emerge from the Bank of England meeting.
My contribution focused on the shortage of economics teachers, the withdrawal of bursaries for potential PGCE students, the closing down of the UCL Institute of Education’s, PGCE Economics course (expected at the end of this academic year), the need to liaise with the DfE on these issues and the damage done by Mr Gove’s attachment to traditional subjects at GCSE and A level. Adrian Lyons HMI, who leads the economics and Business arm of Ofsted, highlighted the important role that qualified economics teachers have in supporting PSHE in schools. They can often provide advice and leadership for the teachers who are actually delivering aspects of economy literacy in the PSHE context. (Though it has to be admitted that not all A level Economics teachers want to get involved in this. They may be making a mistake.)
I have since heard that the DfE is hoping that more economics graduates (who might have trained as economics teachers if a bursary had been available) will now opt to teach Maths instead. Given the shortage of Maths teachers we can see where the DfE is coming from. But from the point of view of fostering economics understanding amongst the general public, this is really not good news.
Making the economy understandable
Most readers will have heard about the graduates who began to ask, in the period 2009 -12, why is it that we did economics degrees yet cannot explain how or why the financial crisis of 2007-8 happened? A number of people swung into action. Professor Wendy Carlin set up the CORE course for UCL students. It is open access and can be used by anyone. Go and explore it at www.core-econ.org. You can register as a secondary school teacher. This course has been very warmly received by many universities. Wendy’s objective is ‘to present economics as exciting, engaging and intimately connected with normal life’.
A group of recent graduates set up ‘Rethinking Economics’. This movement describes itself as “an international network of students and citizens, working together to demystify, diversify, and invigorate economics in our classrooms and society”. www.rethinkeconomics.org tells you all about it. The group has been holding meetings in many university economics departments and it has attracted a good number of enthusiastic supporters, undergraduates, recent graduates and many others. Rethinking Economics is currently developing a student-led workshop which could be delivered to A-level classes.
Joe Erle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins, founder members of the Post-Crash Economics Society at Manchester University, wrote ‘The Econocracy’, which was reviewed in TBE in Spring 2017. The foreword to this book was written by Andy Haldane. If you don’t get around to reading the whole book, you should definitely try to read the foreword.
There are a number of different approaches to making economics courses relevant to current economic issues. There is a debate about whether the subject should be taught in the context of a single paradigm (as the CORE course does) or whether competing theories should be included, using the pluralist approach and encouraging students to learn about alternatives to orthodox economic theory. Academic economists are divided on this. Many are devoted to the neoclassical economic models that are traditionally taught in degree courses.
Many other professional economists accept that teaching theory alone will not help students to gain a good understanding of real world events. Andy Haldane supports ‘student efforts to widen and deepen the curriculum’ but also says in his foreword to The Econocracy, ‘Expertise, exercised at arms-length from the political process, has for me a key role to play in making decisions that are in the long-term interests of society, unconstrained by political cycles and populist surges’. He also argues that accountability and transparency must be improved and be seen and understood by the general public.
People with these varied approaches were well represented at the Bank of England meeting, and their interaction with all those of us who have a long-standing interest in economics education was valuable.
Thoughts and outcomes from the BoE meeting
There was a widespread view that too many students are leaving school without sufficient knowledge of the economy, finance or money. The meeting recognised that the current initiatives are fragmented, both at school and university level. Some university people felt that both their staff and their students could be enlisted to help schools. Those accustomed to working in schools probably felt that this could help A level students. However, knowing how to engage all pupils in the primary schools and in the 11-16 age range would require specialist support from experienced teachers of economic understanding. The Bank of England’s new resources for 11-16 year olds, entitled EconoME, were outsourced from educational resource specialists. The resources are currently in the pilot phase and may turn out to be popular with teachers and students.
If you are teaching A level Economics, you probably feel that you are tied to the theories set out in the exam specifications. But you will be acutely aware of the need to make these understandable in the context of real world data. This was a key theme at the meeting. It was pointed out that the Bank of England, the IFS, the RES and the FT have all produced content that is designed to help make the subject understandable. It is hoped that instead of this content being scattered in a whole range of different websites and publications, it may be possible to create a single location where everything will be easily accessible to you and your students. The FT for schools has already made a start with its relevant articles, charts and data (see the recent EBEA newsletter on how to access this).
The two key criteria for any future strategies should be twofold. We should increase the diversity of the content and the pipeline of people studying economics, but as far as A level and GCSE Economics are concerned, this will be difficult, given the current shortage of economics teachers. Secondly we should raise awareness and understanding of economics, even among those not choosing to study it, including the general public. A possible way to do this would be to make economics content more engaging for students at every level. It was suggested that economists need to build stronger communication skills to make their ideas and their technical concepts more accessible, relevant and persuasive for the general public. Perhaps we will one day find someone like Brian Cox who can do for economics what he has done for physics and astronomy. Meantime we have ECNMY and EconoME (from the Bank of England education department) both of which are developing pilot economic understanding resources for schools.
The pluralist approach sees economics as a social science rather than as a mathematical process. This chimes with the view that teaching economics in the context of real world issues makes the subject more accessible.
Participants’ views and roles
Emma Gordon, head of the Government Economic and Social Research Team at the Treasury, spoke about the new Economics Apprenticeship scheme, a degree level training opportunity that will focus on real world issues while teaching economics. This is being set up by the Government Economic Service.
Russell Winnard from Young Money (previously pfeg) said that fewer than 40% of schools regularly teach financial understanding. He thinks that head teachers would engage with this if the subject matter were made more accessible, although timetable pressures may still be a problem.
The Economics Network ‘aims to enhance the quality of learning and teaching throughout the Higher Education economics community.’ It says economics should be embedded in the school curriculum. It is partly funded by the Royal Economic Society. It hosts the biennial Developments in Economics Education (DEE) Conference. (The next one is in August 2019). The Network collaborates with the University of Bristol to run an annual event for local school children, designed to encourage them to engage with the subject. And of course, it is the host organisation for Economics Review. Take a look at their summary report of the ING/EN survey which is all about the Public Understanding of Economics.
I could go on… The point is, there is more happening out there than you might think. The EBEA will be keeping an eye open for news that you may be able to use in your own work. Watch this space.