Financial Literacy –a Personal View

Dick Evans asks questions about financial literacy as a separate subject.

Concerns about financial literacy, capability and awareness continue to be very prominent.

Numeracy Briefing has carried a series of highly informative articles on the topic. In spite of all the existing initiatives and key organisations involved in addressing this important topic the government has appointed yet another person who has come up with set of proposals to tackle this problem. Obviously there are concerns about the credit crunch and a personal debt level in the UK of £1.2 trillion (50% on mortgages and 50% on pension funds, corporate, credit cards and other loans).
This is particularly worrying at a time of a developing recession that could possibly tip into a full-blown depression.

Clearly there are two identifiable groups in need of financial literacy learning:

  • the adults who are currently experiencing difficulties in handling their finances requiring guidance and help immediately;
  • and younger people who need to acquire knowledge and understanding of personal financial management to use managing their finances in the future.

Accepting that there are a series of global factors at work, the government does not acknowledge that it has contributed to the current situation. For example the government’s highly questionable fiscal and wider financial policies have encouraged a largely unregulated market in the banking and financial world particularly with mortgages and low interest loans. The previous government must also bear some responsibility in creating a laissez faire attitude to personal financial management.

Interesting to note that the UK is at the top of the European league table for personal debt – one of the very few league tables we occupy such a position!

New qualifications?

The press has picked up this latest government initiative and a number of commentators have suggested additional remedies including a GCSE in personal financial management. Interesting to see how this proposal plays with head teachers who already have to manage an over crowded curriculum. I do not want to seem critical of the excellent work being done by these external agencies – e.g. NIACE, FSA and the BSA – and the very valuable resource bases they have established, but worry about a further proliferation of largely unconnected initiatives. Citizens Advice Bureaux which have been dealing with the problems of personal debt have generally welcomed the latest proposals along with other agencies, and have stressed that the new measures must be properly coordinated and resourced.

The danger of fragmentation.

I must admit I have concerns over the development of separate initiatives about financial literacy because they further fragment and consequently confuse, deflect and dilute attention about the fundamental and wider issues associated with the lack of financial capability and with numerical and mathematical capability.

My concerns and resulting questions centre on a number of fundamental issues namely:

  • Which groups of people require support and guidance on personal financial management?
  • Over what time should the programmes of support and awareness raising be planned?
  • How can the school/college curricula accommodate the critical elements of capability in personal financial management in a relevant and meaningful way?
  • At what stages in education and training system should the elements of personal finance be introduced?
  • What are the relationships between financial literacy, mathematics and numeracy so that competence in them can be developed effectively?
  • Should it be a separate discipline at school?

Addressing the needs of adults.

I fully appreciate that urgent action is required to help people who are currently experiencing major difficulties with the management of debt and loan repayment. Many of these people have children, and as research has shown there is a direct correlation within families regarding attitudes to debts and the wider issues of personal finance management. As a result a number of necessary actions can be identified, some short term and others longer term, dependent on the target groups. The existing support programmes must be extended and strengthened for people of all ages who are currently experiencing problems. The excellent work done by Basic Skills Agency (BSA) and the Financial Services Agency (FSA) has included the development of the Adult Literacy Framework and the creation of a series of resource bases. NIACE has also made a major contribution by establishing the FLOP (Financial Literacy for Older People) initiative and in conjunction with other organisations the excellent website resource, www.moneymatterstome.co.uk.

These and other agencies, e.g. Prudential plc, must receive additional government support and recognition in order to further develop resources that can be accessed easily by adults requiring assistance and guidance.

Educational institutions

Colleges, universities and other training providers also have to provide guidance and support to their learners, again capitalising on these existing resources. In addition they need to review and reform the programmes that the learners are currently pursuing in order to assess how financial capability can be integrated into mainstream programmes. The curriculum time available is precious so basic knowledge and understanding of, say, mathematical operations and concepts need to be more fully integrated across different subjects.

As a physics teacher in Further Education I often found learners could not transfer what they had been taught in mathematics to the mathematical requirements of their specialist subject e.g. other sciences, business studies, psychology etc. Very often learners could not perform basic mathematical operations including transpositions, conversions between percentages/fractions/proportions/ratios. Operations involving statistics always seemed to create difficulties for many learners. I know from personal experience that many teachers from different subjects do work together but perhaps this approach needs to become the normal practice.

The need for collaboration

The challenge of how to bring about greater coherence and transferability across subjects that require numerical and mathematical know-how fascinates me. Should financial capability and numeracy be separate subjects? Perhaps it would make more sense if the mathematics syllabuses were designed in a more logical fashion with due emphasis initially on the basic arithmetical and mathematical concepts. If coupled with greater collaboration and coordination between subject teachers, many of the problems could become less significant. If financial capability and numeracy could be contextualised into other subjects, assuming that the learners possess the essential arithmetical and mathematical knowledge, it could alleviate many of the difficulties. As I have argued before the context is all-important in motivating the learner. It enables greater appreciation of relevance and understanding through real situations.

This argument might be considered too simplistic and naive but surely the continuing difficulties associated with mathematics and the resulting problems with numeracy and financial literacy perhaps require a radical rethink.

Dr Dick Evans is a regular commentator on maths and science strategy.

References:

Gannaway. H. “Financial Capability and Numeracy”. Issue 11, September 2007;
Worrall. P. “Designing Financial Literacy Programmes to Support Entry Level”. Issue 11, September 2007.

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