Economics in the School Curriculum: Its Origins, and Reflections on the Workings of a Subject Community

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In the UK, economics as a school subject and its place in the school curriculum is very much under researched and, outside the circles of economics educators, little attention is given to it. It benefits from very little space in journals and even at major education conferences draws only limited interest. This is a pity, since the story of economics is not only interesting in its own right but is illuminative of the contest for the school curriculum as a whole.

From the outset, we should view the curriculum as 'a multi-faceted concept, constructed, negotiated and renegotiated at a variety of levels and in a variety of arenas' (Goodson, 1994, p. 111). This requires us to recognise that economics, like other subjects, has and continues to be contested although, at different times, there are different players operating for different reasons in order to promote different versions of the subject. We should recognise that what transpires as the subject curriculum at any point in time is not a matter of chance but the product of ongoing struggles. In turn, therefore, we need to be aware of those active in the shaping of a subject, their motives for action and the nature of disputes between them.

We also need to be aware of the ways in which control over the curriculum and the subjects it comprises has shifted away from Local Education Authorities (LEAs), teachers and subject associations to central government. It oversimplifies the story but the case was that at some time in the past subject communities (comprising a loose amalgamation of teachers, subject associations, LEA advisers, teacher educators, university academics and even HMI) worked proactively to shape the subject curriculum. Over time, as central government took control, subject communities were not only forced into a reactive mode but factions within them were forced to compete over ideology and resources. This was witnessed in attempts to broaden the definition of economics, to expand it to lower age groups and across the curriculum, and to fit it to the changing imperatives of the day, such as the need to prepare young people for the world of work. Overall, this worked to fracture and divide the community, ultimately making it vulnerable.

BACKGROUND AND OVERVIEW

Over the last thirty years economics education in secondary schools has taken a variety of forms. Economics has been taught as a standalone examination subject; in related subjects and courses such as business studies, geography and integrated humanities; through personal, social and career education programmes; and through other subjects via a process of subject permeation.

This variety has come about for a number of reasons. Like other subjects, economics has had to respond to external pressures and broader debates in the context of social, economic, political and educational change. For example, at different times, economics education has had to respond to the raising of the school leaving age, curriculum debate about a common or core curriculum, changes in assessment and examinations, attempts to vocationalise the curriculum and an emphasis on the world of work, the introduction (in England and Wales) of the National Curriculum, the introduction of GNVQs and Curriculum 2000. Consequentially, the content of economics courses and styles of teaching and learning have been subject to ongoing reexamination, and teaching materials adapted. Over this time, therefore, economics education may be regarded as an 'arena of conflict' (Bûcher and Strauss, 1961) in which the duality of pressures created by the need to be both reactive to external pressures and the desire to maintain a proactive stance require resolution.

THE GROWTH OF A SCHOOL SUBJECT

The 'conditions for action'

At the time of its introduction into schools, economics was an established university academic subject and restricted, in the main, to able, post-16 students. …