Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, writes:
It’s the sort of announcement that creates pleasurable headlines, such as this from The Times: “Jesus saves and so will children under CofE plans”. It's the most enjoyable play on those words since the 1980s catchphrase "Jesus saves – but Keegan scores on the rebound".
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, vowed on appointment to put the payday lenders out of business by competing. His plan was to set up credit unions based in churches: people would be encouraged to save and borrow in small, structured, protected ways without being ripped off. It’s a proper, moral social enterprise, balancing good sense with Christian care for one’s fellow human beings.
Now the idea has been extended and credit unions will be a presence in a few primary schools. The hope, according to a spokesman on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week, is to set up a pilot of 100 such partnerships. If that is successful, it could be rolled out across England, not least because a quarter of all primaries are church schools.
This scheme is designed to help the poor, the struggling, those who too easily and frequently fall prey to the payday lenders (who have now had their wings clipped by government) or, worse, unlicensed loan sharks. It’s about education.
Schools are now being urged to educate children about money and how to handle it. The primary school credit union savings clubs will be another way of teaching students to care of the pennies so that the pounds look after themselves.
I have reservations about many activities that claim to reflect or practise for real life: mock elections, for example. Kids make speeches and listen but their votes change nothing.
Like motherhood and apple pie, this credit union scheme is hard to argue with. It is the children’s own money, it’s real and it does accumulate. But they are not required to put money aside for electricity or gas out of a limited income; to fund and control their mobile phone bill; to work out how to buy nutritious but inexpensive food. Nor should nine-year-olds, for example, be expected to make those important life decisions.
I am not against this plan: I just don’t believe it will really change our nation or even its attitude towards money. The realities of earning, of unemployment, of tax, rent and interest on loans are harsh things which we can’t (and shouldn’t) replicate for children.
Those are the very things, of course, that politicians in the media keep saying schools should teach. Yes, of course we must, like all the other things that society fails dismally to manage without good old schools doing the job: sex and relationships; obesity; alcohol and drugs; smoking. Stick economic awareness and handling money on the end of the list, why don’t you?
I only half-heard the credit union news item when it first came on the radio. I was shaving and my wife had the hairdryer going. So it took us a while to take the story on board. We looked at each other and knew we were thinking the same thing.
“It’s all very well to talk about educating children about handling money,” Mrs Trafford commented. “But when will anyone teach the bankers to behave honestly or politicians to handle the nation’s finances sensibly?”
Good question. If I were the archbishop, I’d keep praying on that one.