Schools need to offer lessons on flexible friends and foes

8th June 2012 at 01:00
Too many lives are blighted by financial illiteracy. It's time to spell out the facts to pupils

Early in my teaching career, when I taught in a school in one of Scotland's most disadvantaged communities, I had a classroom that overlooked the neighbourhood shops. A combined post office and off-licence was at the end of the block next to a piece of waste ground that served as a forum for local men who enjoyed lively discussions and even livelier refreshments. At the beginning of each week the local money-lender also showed up, with his personal assistant, to meet his clients.

The pupils were thoughtful and quick to offer sound advice. "Don't ever drink that wine," they would say, "and definitely don't borrow money from the tally man. You have to pay back much more than you get."

So the basics of financial prudence were provided, in this case by experiences from within the community, but schools have to take things further. Too many lives are blighted because of financial illiteracy.

Even in more affluent areas young people are more likely than ever before to find themselves caught up in the unpleasant consequences of personal debt.

As part of their remit to encourage responsible citizenship, our schools should be offering meaningful courses on personal finance with lessons on budgeting, secure online shopping and using credit cards responsibly.

There is considerable good practice out there already but it's not universal and too many pupils miss out on crucial lessons on finance. One 14-year-old told me he snoozed through his talks from a "boring banker in a suit" who didn't seem to have any experience of engaging classes.

During a recent visit to a primary school, I observed a much more effective course on personal finance. It was developed and delivered by teachers and involved P7 pupils competing with each other to produce the best weekly budget for an imaginary household. The pupils checked online prices, shopped around, looked for coupons and discounts and then used spreadsheets to monitor income and expenditure.

They compared their budgets and best buys to learn as much from each other as they did from their own research. Their lessons involved numeracy, literacy and key thinking skills including problem solving at its finest and most relevant.

Other parts of the course I could see involved examining the difference between needs and wants and an array of real-life dilemmas that enabled pupils to analyse the sort of mistakes that lead people into debt.

In secondaries, I have seen teachers bring in more philosophical aspects of personal finance, including the ethics of advertising, "I want it now" attitudes and the confusion of material well-being with happiness. It's about pupils learning to be responsible to themselves and to others.

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