During a school visit, money-saving expert Martin Lewis gave pupils a challenge: he wanted them to see how much money they could save their parents, through careful financial management.
But the person who learned the most from the class was not one of the pupils.
“The teacher saved a total of £2,000,” he says. “She saved more than anyone else. There’s a lesson there.”
Lewis, the campaigning financial journalist who founded MoneySavingExpert.com, is clear – teachers are not necessarily any more financially adept than their pupils.
And he sees this as a barrier to effective financial education. “This is a subject that many adults don’t feel confident talking to children about,” Lewis says.
“They weren’t educated about finance themselves, so they end up saying trite things like, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’, which is completely inappropriate in today’s financial climate.
“Teachers don’t feel they’re that far ahead of the kids with this. Simply to say, ‘This is on the curriculum – now teach it,’ isn’t enough. We want teachers to feel comfortable, confident and competent to teach it.”
Increasing teachers’ own financial literacy would require proper training, either during initial teacher training or as CPD, Lewis says.
He would like to see each school appoint a financial-education champion, to guarantee that the subject is taught properly. The champion would also ensure that maths and citizenship teachers work together, to deliver a coherent curriculum.
“In any place, there’s always someone who’s more interested in money than anyone else,” he says. “It could be a maths teacher, but it could be the PE teacher. This is almost a clarion call for those teachers to get involved and do something about this. We, as a country, have a horrendous taboo that we don’t talk about money enough. We see it as embarrassing or churlish to talk about the cost of stuff. But it’s important that we do. It allows us to become better consumers, and better citizens.”
‘Pupils want to learn’
Teenagers, too, are keen for effective financial-education lessons. A TES survey canvassed 2,500 pupils between the ages of 11 and 16, to find out what were the non-academic experiences they most wanted to have before leaving secondary school.
Their responses had one consistent theme: they wanted to be better prepared to survive in the world of austerity. The experiences they named included learning how to save money; learning about taxes, mortgages and rent; and learning what to do when you are in debt (“Pooling ideas to get ahead”, pages 24-30).
“I’m unsurprised,” Lewis says. “Totally unsurprised. Much of what we do, for good or ill, is determined by finance. Teenagers aren’t stupid: they get that.”
In fact, he says, children learn to become discerning consumers at a very early age. “Choosing a mobile phone is one of the most complex choices that you can make – way more complex than choosing a cash Isa,” he says.
“But pupils are bombarded by commercial messages all the time. There’s a danger that the only consumer education they’ll get is through adverts.”
Lewis feels so strongly about the importance of financial literacy that he lobbied the government to introduce financial education into the national curriculum. And, since September 2014, it has formed a compulsory part of the citizenship and maths curricula.
“Financial literacy engages pupils who would otherwise switch off in maths lessons,” he says. “Because they see its relevance. Pupils get that they’re crap with money, and they’re wanting to do something about it.”
However, Lewis points out, his campaign won a hollow victory: in the era of mass academisation, whether or not a subject is added to the national curriculum is largely irrelevant.
“The TES survey is incredibly important, because it shows that, whether you’re in a school that teaches the national curriculum or not, financial education is wanted by pupils,” Lewis says. “It sends a message to headteachers: this is one of those areas, in times of scarce resources, that we should focus on.
“There’s no one who’s not touched by this. Money worries are one of the greatest contributors not only to mental health problems, but also to unhappiness. And happiness is important.”
The 100 things that all students should experience before the age of 16: page 24
Martin Lewis’ guide to providing financial education
Don’t assume that adults know more about financial management than teenagers – often they don’t.
Offer CPD sessions on financial education to all members of staff responsible for teaching the topic.
Find a member of staff who is interested in money, and appoint them as a “financial education champion”, someone who is responsible for liaising with maths and citizenship teachers.
This champion should ensure that maths and citizenship teachers have all the appropriate resources to deliver financial education.
The champion should also ensure that citizenship and maths teachers coordinate their financial education lessons, so that they complement one another.
Don’t underestimate pupils’ interest in finance: it is potentially a way to increase engagement in maths.