Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
I'm probably slightly misusing the proverb, but figure my sentiment is correct. It makes sense to teach people the skills that are most important for their lifetime. In fact, teaching these should surely be a priority.
So what should be taught? From my schooldays, I remember suffering through lessons on Shakespeare, quadratic equations and foreign languages to name just a few.
Most would agree that language and math are essential life skills. But should some of the more obscure parts of those syllabus be reserved for those who go on to study the subjects in higher education?
And while we often won’t rely on the humanity subjects in our careers, I feel these help us understand the world, and our place in it. Something I believe to be important.
But enough about what is taught, this post is to ask about something we didn't learn about.
Should Personal Finance be taught in school?
My layman’s view
I’m firmly on the side that personal finance should be taught in school. Admittedly I’m not an expert, but here are a few reasons why I say this:
A recent CNBC article reported that 61% of American households don’t have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency. This begs two questions:
Would better personal finance education improve this shocking statistic? I think it would.
Are these 61% best placed to teach their own kids about personal finance? I suspect they are not.
At my local Bogleheads chapter, I see people aged twenty to fifty plus improving their personal finance knowledge.
While I’m impressed by it, I can’t help thinking it would have been more use for the learning to have happened years earlier while at school. In some cases, this would be twenty or thirty years earlier. Imagine the wasted financial opportunity between school age and their age today.
A relative recently told me that she wanted to buy a house, was confused about mortgages, and felt too embarrassed to ask at the bank because of her lack of knowledge.
If only the education system had prepared her better for this situation, plus other topics such as budgeting, savings, investments, pensions etc?
The educator’s view
I’ve spoken with two highly experienced educators to get their expert view:
Brendan Fulton, Principal at Dubai British School, a leading school in Dubai that recently achieved the regulator’s top rating of “Outstanding”. Brendan has experience in South African, British and International curriculums.
Brian Hull, who has worked in education for over 20 years, initially in his native Canada, before moving to roles in Kuwait, Dubai and, now, Hong Kong. Brian has experience in the Canadian and International Baccalaureate curriculums.
Personal Finance teaching in school?
Both Brendan and Brian are strong advocates that personal finance should be taught in school. The bad news is they advise that it’s not a mandatory part of the curriculum.
Some schools include elements of personal finance within the Personal, Social and Health Education or “Life” curriculum as Brendan calls it, but it’s largely by choice and not compulsory.
If a school’s leadership team believe that personal finance education is important, they will work to deliver it, otherwise it will get short shrift.
The conclusion, it seems, is that too often personal finance is either not taught, or not taught thoroughly or consistently because it isn't within a mandatory curriculum.
Can Personal Finance be taught in school?
Positively, both Brendan and Brian believe there are existing teachers with the competence to teach personal finance with little additional training.
They also consider it a topic where the education is best when shared with the parents, and possibly with local business too. Perhaps it’s telling that they suspect engagement from parents would be low.
The foundations can start at elementary level with topics built around concepts such as pocket money and saving up. However, the personal finance education during high school will be more important.
Interestingly, both Brendan and Brian consider that time in the school day can be made to deliver effective personal finance education.
Will Personal Finance start to be taught more in school?
They aren’t holding their breath for a change to the status quo. Neither Brian nor Brendan see significant external pressure to incorporate personal finance within the curriculum.
Instead they see school’s focusing more on areas where their performance is measured, such as exam results. While it’s difficult to argue against this, It’s a barrier to increased personal finance education as practical skills education falls by the wayside.
The irony is that the focus on examinable subjects peaks just when learning about personal finance is most important, right before students step out into the big wide world.
Hearing these highly experienced educators supporting the inclusion of personal finance within curriculums was encouraging.
But despite this, and despite the type of feedback from polls such as the one from ConsumerCredit.com (see infographic), it seems that enthusiasm for personal finance to be seriously incorporated into curriculums isn’t matched by the curriculum setters. Neither Brendan nor Brian foresee imminent change.
So where does this leave things?
If you’re reading this, do you agree that personal finance should be taught in school?
If yes, do you have a view on what form it should it take? Should it be part of a mandatory curriculum? What topics should it cover?
And, perhaps most importantly, what can we do to change the situation and persuade the curriculum setters?