Sam Dunn: Let's cook up a storm for finance education

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When it comes to celebrities, the personal finance industry's cupboard has always been rather bare.

When it comes to celebrities, the personal finance industry's cupboard has always been rather bare.

Usually, famous faces crop up only in glossy ads for new credit cards or other financial products that just happen to suit their lifestyle (witness Jennifer Aniston for Barclaycard) or to mumble gnomic nonsense (eg Donald Sutherland, Gary Oldman et al for Barclays Bank).

To be fair, Howard Brown of Halifax - last heard wrecking a Barry White love song in a TV ad - has climbed his own, rather peculiar ladder of fame. His mugshot adorns countless billboards, and cardboard cut-outs of him have now begun to litter the bank's branches.

But again, he is there only to promote a brand and product.

By comparison, the roll call of celebrities who have signed up to promote good consumer behaviour is pretty thin.

Last November, the singer Kym Marsh backed a campaign by the Office of Fair Trading to encourage young adults to be more responsible with credit. But it is not clear how successful this one-off appearance was, and the OFT seems rather non-committal about a repeat performance.

By contrast, last week came news of an extraordinary achievement by one particular campaigning celebrity with a passion to change a part of his own industry.

In his zeal to improve the poor quality of the UK's school meals, Jamie Oliver has ended up securing a staggering £280m from the Government. His success took many by surprise and prompted accusations of electioneering by the Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, who was said to be pandering to the pet project of a celebrity chef.

But it's cash that counts, and if it took a mouthy mockney on a crusade to prise funds out of the Government, then good on him. However, those battling to bring about a similar cultural overhaul in schools, by making personal finance a compulsory subject, were left rather baffled by Mr Oliver's coup.

Those involved with the workgroup set up by the City regulator, the Financial Services Authority, to map out the future of personal finance education in schools, describe the group's feelings about the school dinners campaign as "deeply envious".

A debate on whether healthier school meals would have more of an impact than personal finance lessons on the wellbeing of young people would surely be a humdinger. But would it come up with any constructive solutions?

Each issue simply deserves a bucketload of extra resources - money, training, work experience - to give children the best possible start in life.

What enabled Mr Oliver to succeed in boosting resources for his own industry was his willingness to trade on his own talent and fame. He was lucky: his bêtes noires - poor-quality school dinners and the bad diet of the nation's youth - will have stirred the consciences of many parents and resonated with many organisations concerned with the welfare of our children.

A campaign to try to make personal finance education a compulsory subject on the national curriculum just isn't going to tick as many boxes. Enough parents are struggling with their own day-to-day finances to give even a second thought to the next generation.

And as for that all-important industry celebrity to drum up support, I'm scratching my head. Politicians don't have the same appeal to young and old as Mr Oliver, and the men and women at the very top of the UK's savings industry aren't well known to the public. They keep their heads down for an obvious reason - they're too busy making money.

Yet the value of celebrities to any campaign is undoubted, and the financial gurus should certainly not dismiss as a gimmick the idea of calling in a famous face. At the very least, it could generate interest among youngsters in learning how to look after their money.

While the Kym Marsh cameo might suggest the limitations of celebrity endorsement, the Jamie Oliver campaign shows just what can be achieved.

Of course, there's a risk that any bad behaviour by the chosen celebrity might turn the whole project sour. But using a number of different ambassadors could work. There's also the tricky matter of a fee. Yet the cause is a worthy one, and comes with potential for almost unlimited publicity (every school pupil in the UK would be targeted), so surely someone could be found to give their services free of charge?

The project would need tight organisation and lobbying to gain momentum but, given the lack of progress so far, it might just be a long shot worth taking.

So will someone please stand up to make saving sexy?

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