Sam Dunn: Wake up at the back! Put cash on the curriculum

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The Independent Online

Dire financial straits are like crime: best tackled by prevention. Where possible, steering people away from difficulty is vastly preferable to extricating them from it.

In desperate need of help with your debts? Telephone the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Sweating about the prospect of bankruptcy? Call the Consumer Credit Counselling Service.

Struggling with a mis-sold endowment and obstinate life company? Visit the Financial Ombudsman.

We can be thankful that we have all these safety nets, yet what's more important is to stop people being pushed to the edge in the first place. Human nature being what it is, there will always be those who develop nasty financial habits or suffer a turn for the worse that upends their private life and personal finances.

But dire financial straits are like crime: best tackled by prevention. Where possible, steering people away from difficulty is vastly preferable to extricating them from it.

Of course, it's not a criminal offence to be bad at managing money. I'm not suggesting that getting into financial trouble should lead to a spell in the slammer. Rather, there should be adequate measures in place to prevent consumers from getting into trouble in the first place. And the best way to do this is through better financial education.

Mugging up on money matters might sound boring, but being financially savvy will save you thousands of pounds during your lifetime.

If you're one of those people for whom an interest in the minutiae of day-to-day finances comes naturally, learning how to make the most of your cash will be as easy as one, two, three.

But if, like millions of adults, you grapple with the demands of managing a mortgage, overdraft, credit card debt and loan repayments, the best you can hope for is to make a good fist of it - and learn from your mistakes. That may sound a gloomy prospect but, short of acquiring greater self-discipline and taking greater responsibility for your financial health, it's as good as it's likely to get.

But for a younger generation, those who have yet to even open a bank account, the future should be brighter. Personal finance education in schools has long been a "buzz" topic among the great and the good in the industry, and much is going on to try to give it a more prominent place on the national curriculum.

Led by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the City regulator, both sides of the industry - consumer groups and companies - are in a consultation process to try to determine how best to teach money management to youngsters.

The problem is that all this activity has yet to yield any practical results and, not surprisingly, frustration is growing at the slow pace of change. A report from a steering group leading the FSA's drive highlighted this concern and talked of a need for "quick wins" later this year.

To be fair, it's no small piece of homework to devise and set up a plan that should ultimately provide future generations of Britons with much greater financial nous than their parents ever had.

At the moment, personal finance appears on millions of pupils' timetables only as a non-compulsory subject, taught as part of either citizenship or personal and social health lessons.

Depending on both the wherewithal of schools and the attitude of teachers, this means that it is still possible for an 11-year-old to pass through school without having learnt anything about managing money by the time he or she turns 18.

The FSA's strategy needs to address this failing full on. Anything short of turning personal finance education into a compulsory subject is unlikely to produce the desired results, but schools are unlikely to welcome such a move. In recent consultations with one of the FSA work groups, teachers - including headteachers - were found to be distinctly unenthusiastic about compulsory personal finance. They preferred to talk of "raising awareness" and calling in outsiders such as banks for help.

In the face of such resistance, progress isn't going to be made easily. The FSA education team should ignore those "quick wins" and concentrate on finishing its homework properly.

s.dunn@independent.co.uk

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