For many years, Home Economics had the undeserved reputation of an "easy honours subject". Despite the fact that analysis of examination results showed this to be a myth, the idea persisted.
However, this notion must be well and truly buried with the arrival of the new Home Economics syllabus, which was examined for the first time last year. Home Economics - Scientific and Social has replaced two existing syllabuses: the general course and the old social and scientific.
Parents who had fuzzy ideas about making apple tarts and sewing aprons were already about two decades out of date, but many parents are nonplussed at the new subject's difficulty.
The course is divided into core material and three elective areas. Students choose one of the latter. The core areas are (a) food studies; (b) resource management and consumer studies and (c) social studies.
The electives are (a) home design and management; (b) textiles, fashion and design; and (c) social studies. In the food studies area alone, 15 new topics were added to the syllabus.
In addition to the heavy course work, students must complete and present a record of six assignments for examination. They have to present these assignments in the official Food Studies Course Work Journal issued by the State Examinations Commission.
The assignments are challenging. For example, for 2006, one of the assignments concerns meal-planning for older people, including dietary, economic and practical factors. Students have to prepare, cook and serve two of the main courses they have investigated and then evaluate the assignment.
This is not only demanding on the student, but also the teacher, as the official directions sternly state: "Candidates must carry out all practical course work during class time and under the supervision of the home economics class teacher. All journal work must be produced under the supervision of the class teacher."
Given that there are more than 20 students in most home economics classes, this is no mean feat on the part of the teacher. Some of the assignments assume a level of equipment that is enough to make some teachers weep.
For example, one assignment for 2006 calls for investigation of two methods of ice-cream making. This is simply beyond the scope of many schools because not every home economics kitchen has a freezer, much less ice-cream makers. Just as in science, many home economics rooms date back to the 1970s and 1980s, with all the limitations that implies.
While social studies is an elective, all students must study some element of it, principally centring around the family in society. Some teachers have expressed unease at the "politically correct" slant of some of the social studies material.
For example, one popular textbook, in the section "Defining Family", chooses to highlight the 1994 UN definition of the family, which is "the basic unit of society, which acts as a support for its members and which transmits values from one generation to the next".
At the time, one commentator said rather savagely that this definition was so broad that it was capable of being applied to one man and his dog. If this were not broad enough, later in the chapter it says: "Most people agree that a family is a group of people who are either related in some way or who live in the same house." Are a landlord and his tenants a family?
The chapter finishes with the words: "No one family is better than the others." While no one wishes to stigmatise families that do not meet the traditional pattern, if we are talking in terms of outcome for children, there is clear social science evidence that not all family types are the same. Married families have significantly better outcomes for children. This is not easy to teach.
However, in other parts of the syllabus, there is no shrinking from prescription. For example, in the material prepared by the support services for use by teachers, we meet Kate, who is overweight and short of breath. Kate must change her diet and the students are charged with helping her.
This is a sensitive topic in an era of eating disorders, but no punches are pulled about the effects of obesity. No one would advocate making any child feel like a second-class citizen because of her family type, but if research points in one direction, the only option is to present facts in a caring manner that reassures students of their own individual worth.
Mind you, although some might quibble at the notion that runs through this part of the course that gender roles are primarily acquired through socialisation, few would quibble at the attempt to equip both boys and girls with knowledge and skills in Home Economics. For too long, Home Economics languished in a box marked "for girls only".
It is a pity, though, that the emphasis on practical skills such as craft work has disappeared. In an era where we now recognise so many different types of intelligence, it is odd that home economics has decided to concentrate so strongly on the academic.
Nonetheless, the new syllabus is both challenging and interesting. Let's hope, though, that the sheer breadth of the syllabus will not frighten some students away.