Literacy by numbers

Adults are in desperate need of learning to manage their finances. Andrew Mourant looks at the advice on offer

Howard Gannaway has 25 years' experience in financial planning. He is also committed to lifelong learning and has worked closely with Doncaster college. As president of his chamber of commerce, he fostered good relations with the Learning and Skills Council and the Regional Development Agency. He has spoken at many a seminar on managing money. Yet, he admits to struggling with the complexities of re-mortgaging.

Debt counsellors at the citizens advice bureaux now deal with more than a million new enquiries a year. According to a Mori survey conducted for the financial services company, the Prudential, 88 per cent of adults felt in need of more education and 59 per cent felt ill-equipped to deal with their money.

But things are beginning to stir. In 2000, David Blunkett, then education secretary, acknowledged the problem and commissioned the advisory group on financial literacy, Adflag.

These days, citizens advice bureaux educate as well as manage crises. The Financial Services Authority has an educational role and understanding money features in basic skills courses.

Yet, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education - the national organisation for adult learning - says more could be done. Enter Howard Gannaway, the new Prudential research fellow in financial education. His job is to work in partnership with basic skills trainers, citizens advice bureax and statutory bodies. Currently, he is taking stock.

"We're aware of the wide range of programmes and initiatives, and Niace will aim to publicise the best of them," he said. "There are people with no need of basic skills education but who still have difficulties. I've had clients who were quite wealthy yet lacked confidence in dealing with financial affairs. They, too, need opportunities to improve skills at handling money."

Anyone mis-sold a pension or endowment policy would surely agree. The financial services industry, in striving to be seen to be responsible, has initiated a lot of what Mr Gannaway calls "partisan research".

"If we ended up with a learning framework to make people better consumers, we'd be doing a disservice," he said. "We may lose the perspective of the man in the street."

The bureau, with its ever-growing advisory website, has an established reputation for offering impartial help. This goes well beyond fire-fighting: 65 bureaux deliver educational initiatives in their communities.

Wigan's helps to resettle and find employment for 16 to 25-year-olds. "It has someone delivering stuff useful to people arranging their own tenancies - budgeting, or finding out about credit or an electricity supplier," said Kate Taylor, finance literacy development officer at the bureau. This is part of the financial skills for life project developed with Prudential.

"At Bracknell we do sessions in the workplace with local authority employees - anyone from middle management to catering workers," said Ms Taylor. "We look at such things as credit; also the need to build up emergency funds, mini ISAs, etc."

There has been a long-standing relationship between Niace and the bureau.

"They're at the coal face," said Mr Gannaway. "We help out with resources, stand back and offer guidance."

He has recently become involved with a project to help people with mental health problems. "Those wanting social services support can purchase it themselves from their own budget. They have a direct commissioning relationship - they ring someone up and say 'can you come round and give me help'.

"There are issues of financial learning here - people using the service are fully responsible for employing those workers, even down to paying their National Insurance contributions."

Mr Gannaway also helps the FSA, which has a statutory responsibility to educate the public. In November 2003 its chief executive John Tiner launched an initiative to develop and implement a "national strategy for financial capability". The agency has developed online material for adults wanting to learn about financial products and services and how to run a bank account.

"We've long called for improved co-ordination of education in financial literacy. We were delighted the FSA took it up," said Kate Taylor.

"Projects that work best are where different providers work together."

The Basic Skills Agency is another key player. "Developing basic skills is a prerequisite, if you don't have them, you're on the back foot," said Ms Taylor. "Clearly, if you're working with numbers it's a good idea to practise by writing a cheque. But some deliverers aren't experts on the technical content."

At the bureau there may be the opposite problem as experts struggle to put their knowledge across in layman's terms. Staff are now undergoing training programmes. Meanwhile, the skills agency and FSA have devised professional development programmes for tutors who fear that they could find themselves having to offer financial advice.

Financial literacy is included in literacy and numeracy tuition. It might entail reading bank statements or contracts or learning to calculate a budget.

Paul Worrall, BSA's head of financial literacy, said: "I think there's good co-ordination now. Debt advice organisations wouldn't always want to work with national bodies but it's encouraging that there's now a lot of collaboration."

Useful websites: Citizens Advice Bureau: Niace money advice: Basic Skills

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