Money lessons-for free

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker reports on a new bid to reach the financially challenged

At the Citizens Advice Bureau in Wolverhampton, eye-catching posters and leaflets offer help in managing money.

Anyone can make an appointment to come in for free, weekly tuition in financial literacy. The hard part is persuading those who need help to come through the door in the first place.

The scheme, funded by the Learning and Skills Council, is part of a push to improve the financial skills of adults in the Black Country.

"I don't think there's any question about the need," says Citizens Advice financial literacy tutor Sue Walduck. "The difficulty is getting the people with the needs to take advantage of the free service.

"Certainly some of them don't like coming back into a learning environment, no matter how relaxed it is. Yet the ones who do seem to thrive on it.

"We are reaching more than we did last year on the pilot project, so it is progressing. I think it takes time for people to get used to the idea."

There is increasing concern over mounting consumer debt. The Financial Services Authority estimates that currently six million households are in difficulty.

More than three million people with credit cards owe more than pound;1,500. Of those, two million owe more than pound;2,500.

The Government has given education a key role in the battle to improve the way we manage money. Last year a report by Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, talked about the key role of schools and colleges in equipping young people with financial skills.

Similarly, proposed changes to the way maths is taught in schools will include a more practical "maths for the citizen" course, aiming to teach youngsters how to cope with numbers in everyday life.

But what of adults? About three years ago David Blunkett, then secretary of state for education, set up the Adult Financial Literacy Advisory Group.

The body highlighted a link between poor financial understanding and low basic skills and recommended ways of improving financial literacy, particularly among the socially excluded.

In response, the Basic Skills Agency developed a financial literacy programme working on pilot projects to target those groups with partners like Citizens Advice Bureaux and credit unions.

It has also developed resources for financial skills tutors which can be used by a range of organisations, including advice bureaux, housing associations, and adult education providers.

But a National Foundation for Educational Research evaluation found that despite heavy marketing and promotion, take-up in some of these pilot schemes was low.

"The bureaux went into it optimistically thinking we've got lots and lots of debt clients, we must have a sitting target audience," says Jackie Robinson, head of the Citizens Advice national development team.

"They found that in fact it is extremely difficult because for people to want to go into a learning environment and start to tackle those things, they need to be in a certain frame of mind.

"If you're overwhelmed with debt, you might have relationship problems, depression, a whole range of other things going on. You might be in debt because you lost your job - you're not exactly in the right frame of mind to learn."

Now Citizens Advice in partnership with Prudential is running Financial Skills for Life, a three-year programme funding nine CABs to find out what works and what doesn't in delivering financial education in the community.

In Wigan, the bureau is working with young homeless people to help them develop financial skills and prepare for independent living. And Bracknell and district CAB aims to work with local employers to offer advice and support to people facing redundancy or retirement.

Many projects are targeting people who are in debt but who recognise that they have financial problems, such as asylum-seekers keen to learn about how to manage in the new country.

But it still leaves the challenge of how to reach those millions overburdened with credit card debts who do not think they have a problem.

Research by Citizens Advice in 2001 highlighted the scale of that problem and the challenges ahead.

It says that while the debate has focused on the needs of poorly-educated, low-income groups, financial literacy problems encompass a much wider range of issues than just basic skills. It says consumers need additional skills, information and access to impartial advice.

"A common mistake is to assume that only those with basic skills problems or learning difficulties have problems with finances," says Jackie Robinson.

"There is a list of questions I could ask: what's APR? Most people can't answer that, and 62 per cent of the population don't know what an ISA is."

See the Basic Skills Agency adult financial literacy website www.money-bsa.org.ukor see www.moneymatterstome.co.uk

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