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Yolanda Brooks describes a course that pilots students through the maze of personal finance

With the UK's personal debt mountain standing at pound;860.3 billion and three in five bankruptcies due to debt, it seems that the current generation of adult consumers prefers profligacy to prudence.

But with access to overdrafts, interest free credit, credit cards, store cards, hire purchase, unsecured and consolidated loans becoming easier, how will future consumers keep their finances under control?

To help them, the Institute of Financial Services (IFS) has introduced the Certificate in Financial Services (CeFS). Although the CeFS can serve as an entry-level qualification for the financial services sector, the one-year, post-16 qualification is intended to raise levels of financial awareness among students.

For the past two years, the CeFS has been piloted in several schools including Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes. With the school already offering A-level, GNVQ and AVCE business options, it was well placed to run the first pilot scheme.

Nigel Stephen, one of the CeFS tutors, says: "We felt it presented a unique opportunity to be part of what we considered would be the trend of students following a range of courses offering breadth across the traditional academicvocational divide."

The original qualification was geared towards adults already working in the financial services sector. But with input from the pilot schools, the exam has been adapted to meet the needs of a new audience.

"When we originally trialled it for schools it focused too much on the business point of view and was not relevant for students," says Dorothy Wood, head of the schools faculty at IFS. "The new qualification looks at finance from a more individual perspective."

The IFS recommends 40 to 45 hours of contact time and provides each student with a comprehensive study folder featuring three units - why money matters, risk and reward and making judgments.

Areas covered include personal finance, the workings of the financial services industry, financial products, consumer protection, attitudes to risk, economics, social and technological trends, financial planning and basic budgeting.

One of the most innovative aspects of the qualification is the assessment process. For the first two units, students attend Prometric testing centres which also run the theory part of the driving test. Schools book their candidates in and students enter their answers via touch-screen computers.

Results and analysis of their performance is available in minutes.

The third part of the exam is a more traditional written test based on a case study. Although students will have to use pen and paper during the next academic year, plans are under way to allow them to input their answers by computer.

For Stantonbury, the scheme has not only raised levels of financial literacy, it has engendered greater links with the financial industry, says head of sixth-form Joe Cowell.

"Abbey National has been in to support specific aspects of students'

learning and both IFS and Abbey National accompany our staff and students on a week residential to Longrigg on the edge of the Lake District where they focus on the team and personal development module."

Feedback from students has been positive and enthusiastic, says Dorothy Wood, head of the schools faculty at the IFS; "We have piloted CeFS with a range of different schools and the students who have taken the course have been very motivated because they can see how to apply what they are learning."

Whether staying on in education or moving into employment, CeFS is a qualification that has relevance to students' personal as well as career aspirations.

But the killer question is... will an understanding of microeconomics enable students to resist the lure of banks which offer easy credit and the retail sector and big brand names soliciting them to spend, spend, spend?

CeFS has been accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and its counterparts in Northern Ireland and Wales and is worth 60 UCAS points.

CeFS will be available to 12 schools from September, with plans to expand to 100 by September 2004. Contact Dorothy WoodTel: 01227 818 611Email: www.ifslearning.comcefsPersonal Finance Education Group Britannic educational resources Services Bank of

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