Credit crunch? What credit crunch?

13th February 2009 at 00:00
In the current economic gloom, pupils can bank on Govan High's autism unit to keep their finances secure

There is little evidence of the credit crunch at the Royal Bank of Scotland's newest branch in Govan High's autism unit, in Glasgow. A queue of customers wait outside a classroom, holding paying-in books or bank cards. Inside, Kevin is depositing a few pounds' savings towards a present he wants to buy and Jamie is paying Pounds 20 into his account, his first step towards the Pounds 425 needed for a Play Station 3.

This may seem more like a commercial environment than a learning one, as money passes from the teller to be written up in the accounts and then put in the cash box. But the pupils, who all have an autism spectrum disorder, are learning social, financial and life skills. They are also placed in a position of trust and have the responsibility of keeping their classmates' finances confidential.

When Vince McMahon, principal teacher at the unit, heard about the scheme, he thought it would cover a lot of areas the unit was working towards with the pupils.

"They are learning the skill of dealing with people on a small scale, but in a secure environment. A lot of the maths they are studying has a financial element to it and they are doing financial education as a module here. It also goes across the curriculum; it's an enterprise activity, and covers socialising and life skills which are areas of personal and social education."

Additionally, the students are improving their organisational and people skills, two areas which the children with an ASD generally need to develop.

One important element of the work in the unit is to support the pupils in the difficult transition from school to life in the outside world which, due to the nature of their condition, can be difficult. However, the RBS has suggested that if the pupils do well, there will be the opportunity for work experience in a local branch.

"The idea is to encourage regular saving habits for all of the students in the unit, as well as learning to be responsible for their own finances which will eventually be a necessity," says Mr McMahon.

"We find that very much the students' parents do everything for them and there are a lot of aspects in their life where they need a lot of help, but often they are not given responsibility.

"The bank is functioning in an environment where they are nurtured but starting to go down a path to self-reliance."

For the students' learning experience, he believes it is important the bank is a fully-functioning entity: "It's not just a kid-on bank. We are attached to a branch of the RBS. So it's a real, functioning bank.

"I think they are experiential learners. So what we have here is very much a real-life situation they will then use as adults."

Bank teller and S4 pupil Andrew Cowan agrees: "It's not a game, we know it's real. It is important we get it right but are not operating with such high finance that we are going to panic and say: 'What am I going to do?'"

The 14-year-old from Cathcart, whose duty is to check the money and record what has been deposited, says he and his classmates are learning about social interaction and independence: "People in the unit are not used to this sort of interaction and need training. It has helped all of us see how we can be financially independent, but I think it could help anybody at this age. We can also be more confident about our future and more savvy when dealing with banks."

Mr McMahon will be pleased if the bank can achieve the success of the branch at Abercorn Secondary in Glasgow, which was set up in 2005. A school for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, it has 89 accounts open, from a roll of 134 pupils. Many of the older pupils use the bank to deposit their educational maintenance allowance, which allows them to withdraw their money from any cash machine on the high street.

Business studies teacher Patricia McGowan says: "The bank has been very successful. To begin with, it was used as a way of teaching the pupils how to use money and savings, but now they are using it to manage their own finances."

Gordon Cairns is a teacher in Govan High's autism unit.

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