What happened to the whiz-kids of fluent finance?

A new subject in schools was supposed to unleash future generations of savvy savers. But it isn't making the grade, says Sam Dunn
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The Independent Online

A report card for personal finance education in British schools would probably read "Much room for improvement", with perhaps an attached note: "See me afterwards".

This sharp assessment, shared by Ron Sandler and Wendy van den Hende, the chairman and chief executive respectively of the Personal Finance Education Group (pfeg), a small charity at the hub of money management lessons in schools, casts a harsh spotlight on fresh efforts by the financial services industry to bolster consumer knowledge.

A forum planned for October, organised by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), plans to thrash out a new path to boost understanding of financial products and long-term saving.

Meanwhile, the Government-backed Skills Council for Financial Services has just published details of its exam framework for independent financial advisers (IFAs), A-levels and university degrees to inspire greater confidence in the industry.

But for all the efforts being made, personal finance is battling to secure a foothold in many schools. "Everyone thinks we're a good idea and that we're highly thought of, but we have a struggle to raise funding," says Ms van den Hende.

And it isn't just the money. Although personal finance secured a slot on the national curriculum in 2000 as part of personal, health and social education - and as an element of the new citizenship subject in 2002 - it is non-statutory. It is also up against stiff competition in the very same aspects of the curriculum from sex, drugs and relationship issues.

"It's possible for 11- to 18-year-olds to go through school without personal finance education," says Ms van den Hende. "The national curriculum says what needs to be taught, but what actually happens is up to the individual school.

"Whether personal finance takes place or not is sometimes a little bit ad hoc."

She adds: "There are lots of opportunities if teachers take them, but unfortunately, it isn't the first thing to come to their minds. We have to negotiate our way in [to schools] and so we provide the links and materials for them."

Hard-pressed schools reflect Ms van den Hende's frustrations. Colin Taylor, the head teacher at Oakmeeds community college in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, says: "Our maths department is already struggling with the maths national curriculum; personal finance education is not high on our agenda."

Pupils at Oakmeeds, which is applying for specialist status to become a business and entrepreneurship college, benefit from a personal and social education lesson at least once every two weeks - but that may focus on family planning rather than personal finance.

Mr Taylor is also candid about the difficulties faced by many adults with their own personal finances. "I and my members of staff struggle with pensions," he says. "So what hope have the kids got?"

Pfeg admits it has its work cut out; its budget - secured from members of the financial services industry, and annual handouts from the Government (£12,000) and the FSA (£60,000) - is modest.

However, it is running a pilot scheme called Excellence and Access across 300 secondary schools - funded by Barclays and HSBC among others - to introduce personal finance to youngsters. The subject can easily dovetail with lessons such as maths - through, for example, calculations of interest payments - and history, through charting the evolution of taxation.

The scheme is now in its fourth year, but Ms van den Hende concedes that progress has been limited: "It's been difficult to get them involved with moving the agenda forward. Teachers are juggling with myriad other things. We think it's desperately important but teachers' circumstances do make it difficult."

Mr Sandler says the problem highlights the grey areas in the British teaching system: "To what extent should education be discretionary or a centralised body? Personal finance is on the curriculum but that doesn't mean it's going to be taught." This leaves the subject at the whim of individual schools.

Victoria Nye, the director of education at the Investment Management Association, stresses that the charity's job is to promote personal finance in schools rather than provide it. And Mr Sandler admits that pfeg won't make the savings gap - the £27bn annual difference between what we need to save for retirement and what we're actually saving - disappear.

All this suggests it will be many years before a generation of financially adept youngsters enter the world of work. Tom McPhail, a pensions specialist at IFA Hargreaves Lansdown, predicts it will be 20 years before any significant changes are made and warns of a lack of momentum in driving the initiative forward.

Although the family should, in theory, be the main source of finance education, Ms van den Hende says that poor levels of financial literacy and our habit of helping family members out of financial difficulties get in the way.

"At least in schools, there's a captive audience from four years old to 18."

Contacts: www.pfeg.org.uk; www.fsa.gov.uk/consumer

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