Invest in self-help

14th November 1997 at 00:00
When Jean Hicks first started teaching personal finance, her students tended to be men in their sixties with tidy sums to invest. Over the past four years, she has seen a shift, with the workshops she runs for Personal Finance Educational Services (PFES) now attracting people from all age groups and walks of life, and equal numbers of men and women.

Some have recently been through a personal and financial crisis such as the death of a partner, divorce or redundancy, says Ms Hicks, the firm's course director. Others want to know how to invest a pension lump sum or a building society windfall. Recent financial scandals have also convinced many people that they need to take charge of their own financial destinies.

Former further education lecturer Catherine Croydon went on an introductory savings and investments workshop and a follow-up session that showed her how to put her newly gleaned knowledge into practice.

"Advisers probably do their best to give reasonably impartial advice, but they make their living by selling you a product, whereas these courses give you a broad overview of the financial system," says Ms Croydon, who teaches music and English on a freelance basis.

"Also, of course, when you start to invest as an individual, you are cutting out any middleman who would otherwise be taking his percentage."

Like many who sign up for the PFES weekend courses, which are held in Bristol, Oxford and Winchester, Ms Croydon's previous knowledge of savings and investment was hazy.

Ms Hicks says: "I find people haven't paid much attention to their money, though there's nothing difficult about it. It's just that it does not seem to be in the British culture to talk about money. People talk about sex but they don't generally discuss what they earn or what they are doing with their money."

But there are signs that money is becoming less of a taboo subject. The Association of Unit Trusts and Investment Funds (AUTIF), whose information service provides fact-sheets for would-be investors, detects a growing awareness of the need

for financial knowledge. A spokesperson for the association puts this down to the state's gradual withdrawal from funding pensions and healthcare.

"It is now the responsibility of individuals, more than ever before, to look after themselves," she says. "People have to understand the risks attached to managing their money for the long term."

AUTIF and other associations representing the financial services industry have joined forces to look at ways of encouraging schools to include personal finance in the curriculum. But provision for today's adults, which is arguably more urgent, is still patchy.

The Money Management Council produces fact-sheets on aspects of personal finance and provides speakers for courses offered by companies for their staff. But there is a limit to how much this charity can do to teach the public.

"We have tried to help local authorities," says Marie Jennings, the council's chairman. "But the problem is that there has been such a need for debt counselling that resources have gone into that and they haven't gone into (debt) prevention."

What is needed, she adds, is clear, unbiased information about the financial services industry's often "impenetrable" products. But, she says,"At present, the teachers for adult education classes aren't there in any large number. "

Some adult education providers, however, are managing to respond to the growing demand for personal finance education. In London alone, half-a-dozen adult education institutes now run personal finance courses. These range from a series of one-day seminars in money management for women, which the Mary Ward Centre in Camden is offering, to a 10-week evening programme at the City University.

Course tutor Peter Cave describes the City University programme as a "sceptical, philosophical introduction" to personal taxation and investments. A philosopher by training, he aims to expose some of the myths generated by the financial services industry, including the idea that everyone taking out a mortgage has to have life assurance or that Personal Equity Plans will save basic-rate taxpayers much tax on their investments.

Arguing that people venturing into the financial services jungle need to be able to see through these myths, Mr Cave gives the example of the pensions mis-selling scandal, which saw tens of thousands of people - many of them teachers - exchange their occupational pension schemes for inferior private pension plans. While dodgy salesmen deserve a lot of the blame for what happened, widespread ignorance also played a part, he says.

"Pensions mis-selling would not have happened if people had been a bit more educated with regard to how good occupational pensions schemes, such as the teachers' scheme, were and how crazy it was to leave them. "

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