Development of the Economics curriculum

In recent weeks, much time has been spent in the Economics department discussing the merits (or otherwise) of the various Economics syllabi of the main exam boards. John and I were fortunate to have the Chief Examiner of the Welsh exam board, WJEC, spend a day with us and it was refreshing to hear an examiner speak so passionately about the subject itself and the fact that he rewards thoughtful answers that may differ from the set mark-schemes, rather than awarding marks through a box-ticking approach.

Whilst this is certainly great news for us as teachers and practitioners of the subject, it did remind me of a heated conversation I had earlier in the year with some like-minded economics teachers and friends from Eton, RGS Guildford, Oundle, Dulwich College, Radley, Westminster and Wellington, in which we bemoaned the fact that Economics, as an academic discipline at university level and beyond, now bears little resemblance to the subject that we teach at 6th form level. Exam boards have not kept pace with the fascinating developments in the field, such as the great work on behavioural economics by people such as Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahnemann, the analysis of the rapid rise and growing importance of network economies by economists such as Paul Ormerod and Hal Varian, and the interplay between economics and international relations developed by Danny Quah, Cesar Hidalgo and Thomas Schelling amongst others.

Neither do exam boards include economic history on their curricula. Modern policymakers are struggling to understand and apply the lessons learned in the Great Depression, for example, and most economics graduates today can tell you very little about the founding fathers of Economics such as Adam Smith or David Ricardo. To quote Keynes, “a study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind”. I fed many of these ideas and thoughts into an economics education forum earlier in the year co-hosted by the Bank of England, the Royal Economic Society and the Institute of Economic Affairs. At the moment, our education of students in these broader issues is achieved through extra-curricular activities, such as the annual Royal Economic Society Young Economist essay competition (for which I sit on the judging panel).

We really hope that some positive results can come out of the ongoing Gove educational reform saga, and that exam boards can actually develop an economics syllabus that is much more fit-for-purpose than the current system. Recently, I have had the pleasure of meeting nearly 150 economics teachers who have been on CPD courses that I have co-presented, and the message from all of them is loud and clear in terms of improving the exam system for economics. In the words of J.M.Keynes (again!), “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?”. The economy is evolving at an astonishing pace; those responsible for educating the economists of the future would do well to bear this in mind.

By Ruth Tarrant, Head of Economics, Bedales

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Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

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