Penny wise and pound smart

May Sweeney

The annual financial education conference takes place today (Friday).

May Sweeney puts the issues in a wider context

itizen's Advice Scotland reports that it had 50,000 enquiries on debt in 2004, from people who had borrowed a total of pound;157 million. Debt afflicts people of all ages, but is increasingly a feature of the lives of young people in their teens and 20s. This inglorious feature of life in Scotland today can be addressed by legislation, by tighter controls and by restricting young people's access to loans and other commitments.

However, sustainable reduction of numbers of young people caught in the spiral of debt will principally be achieved through good financial education from the early years onwards. At a time when personal debt in the UK stands at Pounds 1.1 trillion, children and young people have to be taught explicitly how to manage their finances and to understand the wider economy.

Financial education dovetails with the aims, purposes and principles of A Curriculum for Excellence, which emphasises literacy, numeracy, citizenship and the essential skills and knowledge young people require for adult life and work. The national debate on education in 2002 demonstrated that the Scottish people demand a curriculum which will fully prepare children for the 21st century.

As a nation, we have declared our clear ambitions for children and young people, that they grow and develop as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society and to the world of work. Financial education can play its part in all of these. It is about changing attitudes and behaviour and emphasising rights and responsibilities both globally and locally.

The children of St Mary's nursery and primary school in Cumbernauld, for example, support a school for street children in Colombia. All aspects of the curriculum provide learning opportunities related to this global citizenship project. Even the youngest children are acquiring an understanding of national and international economic issues within a framework of shared values. An awareness of personal and social values assists young people in determining their own beliefs and informing their decisions today and in their adult lives.

Since publication of A Curriculum for Excellence, members of the national team have been travelling the length and breadth of Scotland, listening to the views of teachers, pupils, parents and many others. Children and young people, in particular, have given clear and unambiguous messages about what and how they learn. They are striving to understand the world they live in, and they are searching for relevance to their present and future lives.

Financial education is essential for all children and young people as they face decisions about their finances in the years ahead. It is in the interests of both the individual and the wider community that children learn to make informed decisions. As parents who are landed with their children's mobile phone bills know, training in financial management cannot come too soon.

Learning and teaching approaches which include real-life experiences make learning both challenging and enjoyable. During a recent visit to Shetland, I listened intently as the chair of the education committee told his audience about a retired primary teacher who was intrigued to discover that a boy in her class had difficulty in multiplying 3 by 12 in school, yet could calculate the odds on his father's "bookie's line" in seconds.

Emphasising connections helps children and young people make sense of their learning. Parents, partners in business and the wider community can also be used to demonstrate relationships between learning experiences in different contexts. Pupils at Breadalbane Academy in Aberfeldy benefit from land-based studies which include agriculture and horticulture. The school is establishing a company as a result of their success in rearing pheasants and partridges.

This kind of practical experience allows young people to understand the real-life application of what they learn in the maths class or in the business studies lesson. They may not be familiar with the term financial education, but their explanations of costs and profit margins demonstrated that they were certainly living it.

A great deal of work is being undertaken to simplify and prioritise future curricular advice for teachers and other educators. This will provide more space and opportunity to incorporate themes suited to local needs and circumstances. As the festive season approaches, my trip to Aberfeldy causes me to reflect that financial education may encompass not only budgets and bank accounts, but also a partridge and a pear tree.

Special report, Scotland Plus 4-5 May Sweeney is national co-ordinator of A Curriculum for Excellence at Learning and Teaching Scotland.

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May Sweeney

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