Why isn’t this taught in schools?

This was the cry of Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain yesterday. In a discussion on the worthy quest by Martin Lewis to improve the teaching of financial literacy in schools (a move for which I am broadly in support), the well-paid presenter explained that one of her own children was surprised, shocked and no doubt disappointed by the news that they would have to pay tax on their own earnings. Reid was incredulous. Yet instead of reflecting on her own parenting and wondering how she had managed to raise someone with such a poor grasp of how the world works, she wailed “why isn’t this taught in schools?!” The entire panel agreed with her, with nobody raising the fact that basic financial literacy is, in fact, currently taught in schools.

To quote a nauseating political turn of phrase, let me be clear: I support the teaching of financial literacy in schools and I agree with Martin Lewis that it could do with some improvement. I support it because there are a small handful of vulnerable children who will not experience any discussion at home when it comes to financial matters. They may have parents who struggle to understand such things for themselves, who lack the skills and the vocabulary to enlighten their own children in complex matters. All of that said, I cling to the fact that all parents have a responsibility to teach their children about the world and how they fit into it and to the fact that the overwhelming majority of parents are perfectly capable of doing so. It is parents who have a duty to give children a sense that money doesn’t grow on trees and has to be earned, as well as the basic principle that most of the things they see around them have to be paid for and that this money comes from all of us. These are the kinds of things that must be discussed constantly in order for a child to grasp them, not ticked off on a curriculum list.

When we’re talking about a parent as privileged as Reid (you can look up the latest best guess on her salary), I am pretty unimpressed by the apparent fact that she does not consider it her responsibility to discuss such matters with her own children. To give her the benefit of the doubt, some people find talking about money with their own children difficult. Some want to cushion their children against the harsh reality that things have to be bought and paid for. I’ll be honest and say that I have never understood this. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have had parents who laid their cards on the table. Who told me what we could and could not afford. Who pointed to schoolmates with more luxurious lifestyles and punctured the image by deliberating where that money might have come from, what sacrifices may have been made in order to get hold of it. I was told that I was lucky to have a father who came home in the evenings and at weekends, who turned down more lucrative opportunities because he had different values and preferred to be at home with his family. By the same turn, my parents got lucky that I happened to observe one or two things that supported their rhetoric. Perhaps the most poignant moment was during a pool party at the house of a particularly wealthy classmate. They had an amazing house and an incredible lifestyle, one which could easily have impressed a child of my age. But the birthday girl’s mother spent the entire proceedings lying on a sun-lounger while we were supervised by the au pair, which I found really weird. (I was too young to work out that the mother was drunk, but realised this in later years). What I did understand at the time was that the child’s father made a brief appearance at around 4.00pm and she burst into tears: he was wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase and was leaving his daughter on her birthday to go to work. I remember thinking there and then, “if this is what buys you a private pool, you can keep it.”

Of course, the debate about where the responsibility lies for financial literacy forms part of a wider discussion on what schools are and should be used for and to what extent we are now asking them to take on things which really should not be their responsibility. I have written before on Labour’s mind-boggling suggestion that schools should take on teaching children how to brush their teeth, and barely a day goes by when there isn’t a story of a child sent in to primary school incapable of buttoning up their own coat, doing up their own shoelaces or even the basics of toilet training. Schools are now the receptacle for every failure in social care and – let us not be afraid to say it – every failure in parenting. It simply is not sustainable.

When I mentioned Reid’s comment on Twitter I received a lot of replies, with plenty of people telling me whether they did or did not recall receiving any teaching about financial literacy when they were in school. As always, everyone thinks their own recollections of school reflect the reality then and now, and everyone labours under the illusion that their own recollections are 100% accurate. If I believed every tutee who claimed they’d “never been taught” something I’d be declaring a state of emergency in Latin teaching across some of the most prestigious schools in the country. The reality? Well, they have been taught it, they just didn’t take it in at the time and it’s my job to fix that. The teaching of financial literacy in schools does take place and Reid’s children will in all likelihood have been given some basic teaching on taxes. Could the teaching of financial literacy improved? Certainly. As Lewis pointed out in the discussion on GMB, it is a topic currently divided between Maths and Citizenship in state secondary schools, so it might be a good idea to have someone with overall responsibility for coordinating the curriculum on finances across the whole school. Great idea. I’m all in favour. However, there will still be kids who simply don’t take it on board and I come back again and again to the reality that nothing is so powerful as the messaging a child receives at home.

So, Susanna: if you truly wanted your children to understand about paying taxes, then maybe you should have talked to them about such things on a regular basis to prepare them for the world they will be inhabiting. Your children have grown up in a household with a fair bit more money than the average person, so I hope very much that this was discussed. I hope you told them when times were tight, or explained to them how lucky they were that this was never the case, since mummy does a job that is considered worthy of a salary that most people in equally worthy professions could only dream about. I hope you talked to them about how much prices have gone up in the last couple of years. Do they know why most supermarkets now have a donation point for local food banks? Do they know the answer to the classic question that MPs are so frequently challenged with: do they know the price of a pint of milk these days? Do you? You see, your children’s teachers were not responsible for explaining the basics of how the world works. That job, I’m afraid, was yours.

Photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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