Demystifying finance in the classroom

Financial illiteracy is a problem for many adults. Ensuring pupils leave school confident in managing a budget, investments and pensions is crucial for the years ahead as Fionnuala Kennedy, Head of Wimbledon High School GDST, explains.

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Amidst the ongoing debate about broadening curricula and ensuring students leaving school are well equipped for life beyond the school gate, we teachers need to talk more about money.

Children in Reception learn to count and handle money with toy cash registers (though that concept itself seems quite alien to all of us now!); Sixth Form discussions will cover student loans alongside UCAS applications, and, rightly, PSHE sessions may be offered about the dangers of gambling, etc. Others may have the chance to run a Young Enterprise company. But financial literacy in individuals – the very practical basics of managing a budget, of credit and debit cards, student loans, taxes, mortgages, investment and pensions – needs more consistent addressing across the school years.

Without it, the financial world is a mysterious, even mythical, place, lurching between the extremes of 'Wolf of Wall Street' excess and the 'boring' necessity of pension planning. Teenagers are not, after all, famed for their long-term thinking or awareness of consequences, and so the assumption is that personal financial responsibility is anathema to them.

Or is it? If you give the opportunity to students to ask questions about these topics in your classroom, the questions really do keep coming. They want to know for their own lives, but also for the lives of others so they can help address the social issues they identify. As campaigners for a fairer world, they know about injustice and poverty; they organise charity fairs and fundraising dress-ups. On sustainability, and awareness building around COP26, they are now aware of the possibilities of ethical investment. And so, we should be developing a curriculum to teach them about the choices they have if / when they do take out a pension, and about tax efficient giving and other basics of effective philanthropy.

We also know that women still lag far behind men when it comes to understanding and building their own financial futures – a House of Commons debate in April 2021 quoted the gender pension gap standing at over 40%. I don't think we can just put it down to the old boys' network and the city careers, though that tradition is clearly a large part of it. For me, the need to act became pretty immediately evident in one of my first conversations with the impressive ex-City women from the Really Helpful Club (see school case study below) – when, on being asked whether I myself had an investment portfolio, I - genuinely - turned to look over my shoulder, to see whom they could possibly be addressing. I, like so many women of my generation, and those above, and those below – have allowed myself to neglect developing financial literacy in a way I simply would not any other area of my life, and still consider myself to be a well-rounded, capable woman. We are doing GenZ a great disservice if we don't teach them how to take control of their finances as they start to accumulate student debt, as they move into the world of work, paying rent or saving up for a deposit (seemingly ever more impossible for young workers in the capital).

Economist Annamaria Lusardi, professor at George Washington University, was extensively quoted in a recent Financial Times article (the paper has brilliantly launched a Financial Literacy and Inclusion Campaign, FLIC), since her research has worryingly found that financial illiteracy is common in highly educated people internationally. And crucially that: 'Younger people are facing a much more complicated financial situation than their parents had. My parents' generation lived in an age of inflation that cancelled their debts, they had very good pensions, and their investments in financial markets were very simple.' In contrast today, Lusardi explains, with market volatility and the possibility of speculating on cryptocurrency without perhaps understanding the risks, plus the need to make investment 'work' for longer as we live longer lives, the stakes for our young people entering that world are higher.

Thankfully, schools have long fostered the tenacity, resilience and problem-solving skills that can lead to successful entrepreneurial careers. We now need to give space for the more everyday concerns of finance so that these phenomenally capable girls and boys may, with access to the right tools, learn not only to invest in their own futures, but to build and shape a world which works financially on a more equitable footing for all.

Case study

As part of Wimbledon High School's 'Good Money: Demystifying Finance' event in October 2021, students in Years 10-13 were joined online by those from other GDST and partner schools to explore all aspects of finance, from investment management and philanthropy to entrepreneurship and personal finance, as well as discussion about the breadth of careers available in the sector.

The day was organised in conjunction with the Really Helpful Club, whose founder, Sarah Austin and Events Director Caroline Edwards secured an impressive panel of successful and inspiring women in the field. These included Anna Lane (CEO of The Wisdom Council), Maya Prabhu (Managing Director, Head of Wealth Advisory at JP Morgan), Katie Lovatt (Head of Marketing & Operations at Holland Hahn and Wills) and Debbie Wosskow OBE (entrepreneur). There was a carousel in the afternoon, led by fantastic volunteers from GAIN, and the varied sessions explored a number of topics including the basics of investment, financial wellbeing and planning, charitable giving and much more.

We were privileged in the evening to finish with a keynote address from Professor Heather MacGregor CBE on the importance of building networks and financial education for young women. After extremely positive feedback, we will definitely build on this event and keep these issues on our students' radars in the future.

Hattie Franklin, Head of Year 13

Fionnuala Kennedy Photo

Fionnuala Kennedy is Head of Wimbledon High School GDST.

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