Opinion: Financial literacy is an essential skill
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Mr O’Flynn was one of those teachers whose occasionally unconventional methods of dispensing knowledge influenced a generation of grammar school boys during the 1970s.
He taught maths with a passion, engaging classes with amusing anecdotes that explained the benefits of understanding differential equations (at one point I could do them in my sleep), but perhaps more significant was the extent to which he made the subject real.
One favoured method of improving our mental agility was to start a class by opening his daily newspaper, turning to the racing pages and listing the odds of various runners and riders on the board. As a young man, Mr O’Flynn had once worked as a bookie’s runner and the point of noting the nags running at Haydock or Ascot was to put our mental arithmetic to the test.
The lesson would begin with 20 quick-fire questions along the lines of, ‘If I put £2 each-way on x at 8/1 and it comes second, how much do I win?’ To this day, even though I only bet on the Grand National, I can calculate the returns on a combined cross-way double and each-way treble in a few seconds.
Later, Mr O’Flynn extended into other areas including foreign exchange – sterling to francs or pesetas to deutschmarks (this was the 1970s remember) – and simple calculations of mortgage interest. The point is, he made maths engaging by relating the subject to the real world.
A few years’ ago, a body called the Personal Finance Education Group (PFEG) created a framework designed to help teachers improve financial literacy.
Although financial literacy had been on the national curriculum for several years, it was not deemed important enough to be a stand-alone topic.
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Incredibly, it became an afterthought, tagged on to something called “citizenship classes” which were meant to “…make a unique contribution to the development of pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.”
Perhaps, but does a ‘citizenship class’ help young people understand the folly of using pay-day loan companies or accurately calculate an electricity bill when different tariffs are used?
As is often the case with public bodies, the PFEG was eventually absorbed into another organisation called ‘Young Money’ which appears to have very similar aims to PFEG: ie, it understands that financial literacy should be recognised as an important topic in its own right, not least because (and this is even more astonishing), the subject isn’t even on the primary school curriculum.
In an age when children as young as eight might have access to payment cards, this is a prime example of idiocy bordering on the reckless.
Young Money’s financial education programme is designed to equip young people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to manage their money competently. According to the organisation’s website, the programme
“ensures learners grow to understand their attitude to risk, and become aware of their own behaviour and emotions when making financial decisions through real-life scenarios.” Mr O’Flynn would smile at the thought of relating learning to real life.
It is not, therefore, unreasonable to suggest that by the age of five, children should be able to make simple choices about how to spend money. By nine, they’re more than capable of learning about borrowing and by the age of eleven, they should be able to undertake straight forward exchange rate calculations. By the time youngsters reach 16, they should understand the notion of fraud and be capable of identifying a scam and creating an income and expenditure budget.
All basic stuff, granted, but how valuable it is. Indeed, personal finance is one area of life we simply must understand to ensure that we do not fall prey to those who might consider us an easy touch.
Mr O’Flynn justified his unconventional teaching methods (he was also a great conventional maths teacher) by reminding us of the thousands of shysters and wide-boys only too happy to relieve us of our hard-earned cash, frequently quoting Phineas T. Barnum, attributed with saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
“Don’t be that sucker,” were Mr O’Flynn’s usual parting words as he swept out of the classroom, no doubt to study the day’s form over a cup of tea in the staff room. We should note his wise words.
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