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We have been hit by recession and many households are up to their ears in debt. Now primary schools are making stacks of effort to ensure children can look after their own financial futures. Meabh Ritchie reports

We have been hit by recession and many households are up to their ears in debt. Now primary schools are making stacks of effort to ensure children can look after their own financial futures. Meabh Ritchie reports

The school fete is traditionally a time when parents get rid of all their household junk, giving it to the school to sell, while their children promptly buy back someone else's for a knock-down fee.

But one school taught its pupils an altogether more enterprising lesson for its summer fair. "Each group in a class had made something to sell and they then talked about what would happen if it rained," says Jan Campbell, from the PSHE Association, who had worked with the school. "We offered them the option to buy insurance, which all but one group paid for. In fact it did rain, and the ones that took out insurance not only got that insurance money, but made a huge profit on top of that because everyone came along to the school hall and still bought the goods."

It has never been more important for children to learn about becoming responsible with money. Although the UK economy looks to be creeping out of recession, unemployment is at an all time high and the average household in Britain is still pound;9,000 in debt, excluding mortgages. The credit crunch brought with it the stark realisation that too many people had been borrowing too far beyond their means.

In a recent TES survey about primary financial education, almost three- quarters of teachers said that there was an increased need for financial capability education since the onset of recession. The Government launched its pound;11.5 million. My Money project in 2007, more than a year before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and before the full impact of the sub-prime loans market hit home. The project is an attempt to rectify problems with Britain's lack of financial education, says Sarah McCarthy-Fry, exchequer secretary to the Treasury and former parliamentary undersecretary of state for schools and learners.

"We have a huge problem of financial education in this country," she says. "When kids turn 18, they're bombarded with offers of credit cards and overdrafts. If they have that education when they're younger, they should be better able to manage their finances at that age."

John Rhodes, head of financial capability at the Citizens Advice Bureau, agrees: "We see the effects of people who are not confident with the way they use their money," he says. "We have about two million inquiries each year from people who have got themselves into unmanageable debt. I'd like to think these numbers would substantially reduce if, in schools, they had received financial education about some of the more obvious pitfalls."

Believe it or not, young children are actually keen to learn about money and finance. Many of us switch off at the seemingly endless run of graphs and figures on the news, but even primary school children want to know more. The Personal Finance Education Group (PFEG) is working with 17,500 primary schools and 36 local authorities to develop teachers' capacity to teach about personal finance through its What Money Means project, supported by HSBC. The organisation has found that more than 76 per cent of seven to 11-year-olds are already saving for their future and 51 per cent of teenagers would like to learn how to control their spending.

Jacqui Rice, Year 6 teacher at Luckwell Primary School in Bristol taught personal finance (PFE) through a literacy project and was amazed at how keen the class was. "We started reading the book Millions by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and took it from there," she says. "The way we did it gave money a real meaning."

One of the main concerns among teachers who took part in the TES survey was fitting finance into an already saturated curriculum. Ms Rice admits that her project did run "way over" her literacy hour, but she wouldn't change it. "They know as much about personal finance education as I probably do now," she says.

In fact, children tend to gain a more thorough understanding of finance if it is taught through other subjects as opposed to a separate lesson on money or figures.

Judy Short, PFEG consultant, worked on a Year 5 project about the Victorian era with one school. "We looked at pounds, shillings and pence and compared it with what we have now. They were looking at other areas of Victorian life, so why not look at the money?" says Ms Short. "They were amazed at how people dealt with the different money. It's about making it implicit in whatever they're learning; it's not just a bolt-on."

Introducing personal finance into different subject areas also allows teachers to bring up the social, cultural and emotional context of money, all of which are essential if children are to develop a responsible attitude. One of the key things young people need to learn is the difference between a need and a want.

"I think we'd all like to get to grips with that within our own domestic situations," says Celia Allaby, who is responsible for the What Money Means programme, "and these are the things that can be done at this very early age, and can be built on as they grow up".

Ms Allaby recently saw a teacher use puppets to tell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk with Year 1 pupils. "After doing the story in literacy, the pupils received a postcard from Jack and his mother who were in Marbella, using the golden eggs to live off, but they were running out," she says. "The children then had to decide what advice they would give to Jack and his mother to make sure they didn't `spend, spend, spend'. These things are just as important then, as they are in Year 6 and they can develop from this young age."

In the real working world, the financial crisis has put finance and money into context all too well. Stories about stocks and shares, credit and debit, rates of interest and redundancies are no longer confined to the pages of the Financial Times, but are directly connected to everyone's day-to-day life.

However, it has also made us painfully aware that money can be a sensitive subject and one that can be difficult to discuss in school. One of the teachers who took part in the TES survey said: "We don't all agree on when it is good to borrow money. The good money values need to be defined. What is morally correct in Britain today? What is a sensible amount to save for a rainy day?"

Personal finance is often taught within the framework of PSHE, and these teachers are used to dealing with subjects that come close to the bone, such as sex, drugs or personal hygiene. But talking about money can also highlight divisions in the classroom or make children aware of what's going on at home. Developing teachers' confidence to tackle the topic is "vital" says Jan Campbell from the PSHE Association.

"We need to help teachers to take it on. Once they do, the confidence and excitement of children is really infectious."

Ms Rice was initially nervous about knowing how to deal with the potentially sensitive topic and about her own understanding of finance, so she called in a volunteer from HSBC. "When she came in, initially, the children played Monopoly and she went round and talked to them to find out what they knew," she says.

"We had an hour and half session where they asked her questions, and I stood there and thought, `Actually, I did know that,' but I just hadn't had the confidence to tell the children that was right. I could then reiterate what she said after she'd gone."

The Rose review has already recommended a move towards themed learning in the primary curriculum and has earmarked a place for learning about money within both maths and the physical development, health and well-being strand.

But Mick Waters, formerly of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, believes that giving it a place in the curriculum won't necessarily translate into good teaching. "There are plenty of things that are statutory that are not well learnt. The curriculum may be sent from London, but it's what happens when it gets into the classroom that makes the difference, and what you do with it when it gets there," he says.

Teachers on the What Money Means project have helped children work out what Wayne Rooney earns in an hour, how many hours someone on minimum wage would have to work to pay for the latest Nike trainers and why you don't always have to have money to pay for something. But as Mr Waters concludes, sometimes those lessons can be hard ones.

"As soon as you lose a tooth, you start to learn about money," says Mick Waters, "and you want to lose some more (teeth) quickly. But as you go on, you eventually learn that even banks get into special measures."

  • 93% of teachers and parents think personal finance should be taught in schools.
  • 10 is the average age children start to shop online.
  • 7 is the average age children start to receive pocket money.
  • 90% of teenagers worry about money on a daily basis.
  • 76% of seven to 11-year-olds are already saving for their future.
  • 66% of Britons believe finance lessons would have helped them deal with financial challenges. 51% of teenagers would like to learn how to control their spending.
    • Source: PFEG

      How should personal finance education stack up?

      Earlier this month The TES held a roundtable discussion about finance education in primary schools, attended by primary teachers, finance experts and representatives from the Personal Finance Education Group and HSBC. Here's what they had to say:

      • Jan Campbell, PSHE Association
        • Make PSHE a statutory requirement in schools, so it has that additional emphasis. As part of that, personal finance education would be an integral part so it has more clout.

          • Kirsty Banks, learning mentor, Willow Lane CofE Primary School
            • For me it would definitely be that PSHE is made a statutory requirement. I found it really valuable teaching personal finance through PSHE. The children we're teaching are our future, and if they don't understand about money, where is the world going to be in years to come?

              • Marilyn Holness, Roehampton University
                • I think after it's become statutory, that it's embedded into the initial teacher training and CPD for teachers, so that we extend the national PSHE teaching accreditation and that it's embedded into the standards for all teachers.

                  • Nikki Fulford, HSBC volunteer
                    • I'd like to see more volunteers going into schools. A lot of children I deal with, the parents don't actually work, so if you have people from all walks of life going in there, it will broaden their horizons and help them realise what they can achieve.

                      • Celia Allaby, Pfeg's What Money Means programme
                        • I'd like to look for ways to get more funding and make sure that all schools know about personal finance education and embed it in the curriculum in primary.

                          • Mick Waters, director of curriculum, Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency
                            • The aims of education in this country are that children should be successful, confident and responsible. I think we should build on examples such as What Money Means and accept that a good education will lead to good standards and rounded experience.

                              • Jacqui Rice, Year 6 teacher, Luckwell Primary School
                                • I'd like to see all primaries, and indeed secondaries, embrace personal finance education and use what's out there themselves.

                                  To view a webcast of the whole discussion, register at

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