We need to prepare our school pupils for Wales’ dysfunctional economy
Calvin Jones, Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School
From 2022 school pupils in Wales will begin to be taught under the new ‘Successful Futures’, curriculum, developed by Welsh Government in collaboration with Professor Graham Donaldson.
Beginning with Year 7, then rolling out across all ages, the new integrated curriculum is the biggest change in school-age education in Wales in the devolution era.
At a time when it is becoming ever-clearer that life outcomes are centrally influenced by early-years experiences, success is critical.
The increasingly fragmented and uncertain working lives faced by current – and almost certainly future – Welsh citizens means that the importance of the curriculum in preparing pupils for work, however defined, cannot be overstated.
With Successful Futures, we have a unique opportunity to teach business and economics (and social science more generally) in ways that connect, for pupils, ‘big’ systems to individual outcomes – including their own.
Making our pupils ‘economically aware’ might be almost as important as making then literate or numerate, and unlike other subjects, almost guaranteed to have an ongoing resonance and importance throughout their lives.
Uniquely for Wales, the Future Generations (FG) Act (and Commission) provides guidance for what kind of society we are preparing our children to be part of and to contribute to – and by extension, what knowledge, competencies and capacities they will need.
It is this Act that can provide the ‘why’ for what our children will learn. The concept of wellbeing is central to the FG Act, and to understanding how different human and environmental systems ‘deliver for Wales’.
It is no great leap to imagine how the concept of wellbeing could be used across Humanities to explain how our physical, social, economic and historical contexts combine to deliver material, psychological and spiritual welfare, and a sense of place and belonging – albeit not, of course, evenly across people or places.
Within this the key objective for economics should to explain how economic systems – both market and otherwise – combine to create and distribute the products and services which underpin our welfare, and to contextualise economic structures and actors within wider society and ecological systems.
Here then is an opportunity to deliver the story of ‘stuff’, and the stories of places and people, in ways that reveal the forces that shape key outcomes for these places and people.
What better grounding to then to helping pupils understand their own potential roles in these places and systems and place careers development and advice within this wider societal and ecological framing?
To show how an economic life is only a part (but a vital one) of a social life, and how this all made possible by the planet that harbours us?
Explaining change is as important as revealing structure. My father left school in the Valleys in 1963 with, um, patchy qualifications and worked in factories – all within walking distance of his house – that are now gone.
I left university in 1990 for a well-pensioned ‘job for life’ in a council. Those options are increasingly unrealistic, and the impacts of ‘Industry 4.0’, the ‘gig’ economy and stagnant economic growth must be reflected in a syllabus that aims to equip students for life in the 2030s and beyond.
Moreover (and despite the fact that many of our best students leave), this education should be unapologetically bespoke to Wales: unlike physics, the laws of economics do not apply evenly across place, and Wales has a narrow and in many ways dysfunctionaleconomy that shapes (and limits) opportunity.
We could develop a curriculum that emphasises subsidiarity and gives birth to truly place-based education across Wales, with the students of Pembrokeshire learning about the economy on the beaches, those of Gwynedd next to the hydropower turbines of Snowdonia, and those of Wrexham in the cavernous hangers of Airbus.
And of course, the implication of this is that the economy cannot be taught wholly in the classroom; here we have an opportunity to really involve the firms, third sector, public organisations (and even universities) in Wales in helping shape business education to improve the employability that is such a current concern.
Meanwhile, fundamental concepts that are key to personal success – such as enterprise – can be interpreted for places where, for example, social and financial capital, and familial or peer examples of entrepreneurship, may be scarce.
This reshaping and localisation of economic concepts, together with a focus on wellbeing, provides an opportunity to fit our children better for their future working lives.
But only if we can integrate the teaching of economics and business with careers development advice, and have these conversations in light of the best of our knowledge about which future skills (such as problem solving in complex environments) will be in demand, and what sorts of activities (rather than narrow occupations) will be valued and valuable.
If this all sounds a little complicated to you, you’re not wrong. There would be much to do before holistic, integrated, career-focussed and context-aware business education was a reality in Welsh schools.
In particular this ‘bespoke and local’ approach would need careful explanation to parents who like the idea that they can assess the performance of a school via standardised assessments (however false that impression might be, given the social factors that shape pupil performance differently across space).
This is a particular need to explain how an ethically-aware, place based education can actually help students who go on to leave Wales – something we already passionately believe to be true at Cardiff Business School.
My impression after talking to teachers is that the biggest hurdle is the lack of confidence and knowledge amongst teachers themselves about economics, management and business – which of course is not much taught to pre-16-year-old pupils, outside the Business GCSE.
Those teaching history, geography and R.E. (and new teaching entrants) must, before 2022, be given the knowledge and confidence to teach business and indeed social sciences if the Curriculum is to be truly relevant.
Some of this can be achieved by the provision by Welsh Government of a bank of resources, including materials and pedagogic approaches that help teachers deliver core concepts and describe key structural economic features, but which still leave room for ‘localisation’.
The Government might also help schools develop local networks with organisations ‘on the ground’ by engaging with relevant representatives – Federation of Small Business, Institute of Directors, Welsh Council for Voluntary Action etc – at national scale.
An additional approach might be the expansion of problem-based (or project-based) approaches that bound teachers’ required knowledge, at the same time as emphasising a multi-disciplinary approach to enabling pupils’ understanding of apparently ‘economic’ outcomes.
And, as Professor Chris Taylor made clear in a recent lecture, there is a need for us in higher education to step up and help.
The gulf between universities and schools in Wales is considerable, bridged occasionally by specific programmes and by the provision of PGCE and bachelor’s level teacher training (not, one notes, education), but with no sense that schools and HEIs are (along with further education colleges) in any way part of an integrated educational offer.
Successful Futures, which comes already with an appreciation that pre-16 education must fit with A-levels and Welsh Bac, offers the opportunity to build this educational framework in ways that fit with, and contribute to, the goals and ways-of-working of the Future Generations Act.
For a HE sector faced with falling numbers in key UK undergraduate age cohorts and the potentially significant impacts of Brexit, there is the opportunity to teach different people different things.
For my Business School and those like it there is a particular opportunity to help ensure that teachers in Wales have the knowledge and competence to teach business and economics in ways that are topical, interesting and applicable.
We have the time before 2022 – just about – but we also must lever the resources to engage both teachers and university lecturers in a programme that would build on past provision and benefit both sides, and of course the school pupils themselves.
So this would not be easy: it requires a deep change in the way public and quasi-public institutions work, and in the behaviours and attitudes of those that work in them.
But this is true anyway of the new Curriculum and of the Future Generations Act. These are things that if done half-heartedly, are best not done at all.
In the area of business education we have a clear and present need, hence a strong rationale for action, and a clear and distinctive set of objectives.
The only question is whether the education system in Wales has, across its varied stakeholders, the capacity and incentive to make this a reality.
So, people. Give me your inset days…