This boot camp can make kids cash wise

It's never too early to start learning about money and savings, says James Daley

If my parents had ever tried packing me off to business school during the half-term holidays when I was a teenager, I probably would have left home. At 14 years old, talking about money did not interest me, or my friends, in the slightest. Spending it - maybe. Saving it, learning how to invest it, or discovering how to launch my own business - definitely not.

So when last month, I came across YoungBiz - a company which coaches youngsters through "mini-MBAs" and financial literacy courses - my first instinct was to call in the NSPCC. Surely this financial "boot camp" was somewhere parents sent their delinquent children as a means of punishment - not a course to which teenagers might sign up of their own volition?

To see for myself, I took a trip to affluent St Albans in Hertfordshire, where YoungBiz was running a one-day course on personal finance. Earlier in the week, the company had also completed a three-day entrepreneurship course, attracting some 40 students, aged between 13 and 15.

Financial education is a hot topic in the UK at the moment. With Britain well behind the US and many of its European peers in terms of financial literacy, we now have one of the worst savings gaps in the developed world. If this decline is not stemmed, a generation of people will be faced with the prospect of having to work through to their grave, or accepting a much poorer standard of living in their retirement.

More immediately, there is also the issue of the unsustainable rise in UK consumer debt levels, fuelled by low interest rates and increasingly competitive credit card and personal loan markets.

These problems have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that while the joys of consumerism are piped through TV screens, billboards and newspapers every day, messages about financial prudence and responsibility simply get no airtime.

St Columbus College in St Albans, where YoungBiz ran its latest round of half-term courses, is one of just a handful of schools in the country to offer the new "financial studies" AS-level. While this newspaper has led the call for a financial GCSE, no such qualification yet exists, with many children subsequently receiving no substantive financial coaching.

It was this gap which prompted David Gaze, the head of financial studies at St Columbus, to try to increase the opportunities for British teenagers to get access to financial training. Along with businessman Mark Hare, Gaze approached Texas-based YoungBiz with a view to introducing their courses to the UK.

Founded in the US - where finance classes for children are a well-established phenomenon - almost 10 years ago, YoungBiz now coaches a few thousand children through its courses every year. Since moving into the UK market last year, Steve Morris, the company's founder, says he's been impressed by the enthusiasm for financial education over here.

"It's still early days, but we haven't come across a single authority or school that has said they're not interested," he says. "It's not just a British thing though, we've found it's the same the world over. Every parent we've ever spoken to says 'I wish I had that kind of education when I was young'." Although Britain may have all the potential to embrace YoungBiz, and financial education in general, back in St Albans I was still sceptical as to how enthusiastic a class of 14-year-olds would be about the idea of giving up their half-term to learn about finance.

To my surprise, however, the majority of the dozen or so enrolled on the personal finance course were quick to boast that it was them - not their parents - who had raised the idea of signing up for YoungBiz. Furthermore, those who admitted to some strong-arm tactics by their folks, conceded that now they were there, they were glad to have come.

Gaze says that in a sixth form of 150 students, he now has 60 taking his financial AS-level.

The one-day personal finance course that I sat in on costs around £50 per person, and walks its students through the basics of budgeting, borrowing, saving and investing, using a combination of big group discussions and smaller group workshops to hammer the main points home. The three-day "mini-MBA", which costs £180, starts off with a background to business and entrepreneurship, coaching students through the basics of running a business and compiling accounts, before making them all deliver a business plan pitch, for which there are real cash prizes for the very best.

The courses start with a short financial knowledge test. The students, most of whom attend local private schools, scored an average of 50 per cent on their initial tests - better than YoungBiz's coaches would usually expect to see. By the end of the programmes, all were scoring between 70 and 90 per cent.

Morris believes the YoungBiz concept will prove to be just as popular in less well-off areas in the UK. "There has been overwhelming enthusiasm to try and work out a way to get the local education authorities to help pay for our sort of courses," he says. Juan Casimiro, an executive of YoungBiz and one of the principal course teachers, adds: "One of the things we try to teach the kids on the business course is that you don't have to be an "A" student to be a successful entrepreneur."

While it may take several more generations before the British are talking finance as fluently as Americans, there appears to now be some real momentum behind the cause. This year's introduction of the child trust fund, ensuring every child have savings, can only help. Looks like financial boot camp may be here to stay.

www.youngbizuk.co.uk

'I changed my mind and made £50'

Jamie Hissey, a 14-year-old paperboy from St Albans, says the idea of spending four days of his half-term at business and finance school did not sound like much fun. "My mum and dad wanted me to do it," he says. "To be honest, I wasn't very keen."

After the first day of his "mini-MBA" programme, however, Jamie changed his mind. Having come up with a new invention to stop school children from being able to rock back on their chairs, he came third in the entrepreneurial competition, winning himself £50.

'I want to start my own company'

Natasha Patel, 15, from St Albans, heard about YoungBiz through her school and took the details home. Signing up to both the "mini-MBA" and the personal finance course, she sacrificed most of her half-term holiday.

"The way our teacher talked about it made it sound really interesting, and I thought that if I ever wanted to start up a business, this would be a worthwhile thing to do."

Although Natasha has her eyes set on a career in law, she says that she still hopes to start her own company one day.

'Now I know for sure I want to find a job'

Lauren Cook, 14, decided to enrol on YoungBiz's personal finance course because she reckoned it was time to learn how to control her spending and make the most of her pocket money.

"I'm rubbish at saving," she says. "I always spend all my money at once, too." Before taking the YoungBiz course, Lauren had been thinking about taking a part-time job to help stay solvent, and is now more determined than ever.

"Coming on the course made me want to get a job even more," she says.

'I knew nothing about business'

Dominic Moss, 13 from Virginia Water, says he heard about YoungBiz from a friend. "I thought it would be a good idea, because I know nothing about business and money," he says.

"I'm really bad at saving, and some of my friends have got as much as £500 in the bank."

Although he already has his sights set on a career in law, architecture or medicine, Dominic says the YoungBiz course has inspired him to start off by getting a paper round to earn some extra cash.

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