Sure, follow the money but think first

There’s nothing like a financial crisis to remind us of the importance of quality financial education at school. But is that what Australian school students get?

NewsCorp columnist and financial self-help author of The Barefoot Investor Scott Pape has launched a TV show and online petition calling for a “Money Movement” focused on teaching young people the importance of working, saving, spending and giving. He’s calling on governments to implement an annual “Money Challenge”, kick the banks out of schools and commit to helping teachers become financially fit.

Are these good ideas?

Academics and consumer groups also argue that bank-led financial education is problematic and these programs have already been banned in Victoria, Canberra and Queensland. 

But while the banks are being shown the door, new players are climbing through the window with flashy websites and workshops. They’ve learned from the Commonwealth Bank that this space can be fun and lucrative.

So while school-led initiatives free from commercial motivations are the change that’s needed, “finfluencers” like The Barefoot Investor have their sights set on schools. Their solutions are not always aligned with the curriculum, informed by educational research, or independently evaluated.

If we want to fix the financial education problem, these things matter.

The federal government flagged financial education as a priority following the 2008 global financial crisis. It invested heavily in the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) to strengthen financial literacy policy, strategy, curriculum, and education initiatives.

ASIC’s early policies and strategies were used to influence aspects of the current Australian Curriculum, which frames significant opportunities for teaching about work, resource allocation, consumer rights and protections, and financial mathematics. The Australian Curriculum links to Scootle resources to help teachers plan for learning. Many of the consumer and financial literacy resources were produced by ASIC under the MoneySmart Teaching brand. However, nothing was done to regulate the presence of the Commonwealth Bank in schools, and it has continued to promote its Dollarmites and StartSmart programs in schools, cultivating children’s trust in its brand.

Generations of students have completed schooling while we have relied on finance industry expertise to guide money-related education. Yet research shows that schools still vary in how they represent the curriculum in their programs. All address the content as it features within learning areas like mathematics. Others make connections between mathematics and economics through thematic programs, although after Year 8 these tend to be elective studies and not all students choose them. 

OECD PISA financial literacy assessment results confirm that little has been gained in terms of student learning over this period.

Policy and curriculum initiatives led by the finance industry simply haven’t delivered.

What do we know from research?

Research suggests that financial problem-solving and decision-making can rely as much on psychological, social and cultural factors as information taught at school. 

A recent study found there to be little research on the impact of school financial education programs on actual financial behaviour long-term. Another study concluded that the impact of even large educational interventions decays over time with negligible impact beyond 20 months.

Still, research offers guidance for targeted approaches. For example, OECD PISA Reports highlight a strong correlation between Australian 15-year-olds’ financial and mathematical literacies. Classroom research in Australia and New Zealand has demonstrated the importance of respecting the cultural aspects of students’ financial values and practices, situating mathematics learning in financial contexts that matter to them, and taking an explicit focus on financial language. And a research review commissioned by the Australian Taxation Office recommended that it would be helpful to schools if the possibilities for teaching about taxation and superannuation were more extensively and explicitly signposted.

There is no “magic bullet” – but at every level within the education system, professional educators continue working hard to improve the conditions for young people to develop financial capability at school.

At the national level, government agencies are engaging with research evidence to inform proposed changes to the Australian Curriculum.

The review of the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics seems to draw on the above insights, with proposed changes emphasising the need for meaningful connections between mathematical concepts and real-world financial contexts at each year level. The achievement standards have also been strengthened, which means teachers would be required to report on student learning taking place within financial contexts. The effect would be more routine opportunities to learn about financial trends, problems and issues each year and over the course of one’s schooling.

Money matters are only getting harder

The Barefoot Investor says he wants to “teach kids the rules of the game”.

In the wake of the Banking Royal Commission and pandemic, we know the game needs to change.

Students are being raised and educated through a crisis that will shape their economic and financial perspectives and prospects well into the future.

Quality financial education can prepare young people to participate in the system in informed ways, but also to question how the system works and whose interests it serves. This means teaching them to ask good questions about financial innovations like tap ‘n go, buy-now-pay-later and virtual currency. It means teaching them to consider actions they can take that will be good for their bank balance, the economy and the planet, like reducing, repairing, recycling and upcycling. And it means teaching them to critique the role of governments and powerful organisations in shaping their financial realities.

Ecstra Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation, is funding important work in this area. For example, Deakin University has been funded to develop a professional learning series that will boost teachers’ knowledge and skills to develop student financial capability in ways that are sensitive to socioeconomic circumstance. This program includes a suite of new resources that teachers can draw on to innovate and influence change within their schools. Colleagues at Monash University are designing and testing a financial literacy program for young adults with intellectual disability. The impact of these programs will be measured and the research findings used to establish best practice principles.

What should happen next?

Scott Pape, The Barefoot Investor, is using his media profile to start conversations within families and draw attention to an important educational issue – these are good things. But financial education at school is too important to leave to finfluencers.

Since the financial landscape is complex and dynamically changing, ongoing resource development and teacher professional learning is needed. Universities, teacher associations and school communities are best-placed to drive this work.

We can learn from success stories in STEM and early years education, where competitive tenders have seen expert teams lead the development of independent, inclusive, educationally sound and rigorously evaluated programs. This approach has shown that with the right professional learning opportunities, school leaders and teachers have the know-how necessary to innovate. 

The authors have been funded by the Ecstra Foundation to research what education professionals, teachers and students think about financial education in Australian secondary schools, including what professional learning opportunities and resources are most useful.

Jill Brown (left) and Carly Sawatzki (right) are teacher educators and educational researchers at Deakin University. They are internationally recognised for their mathematics learning task design and approach to creating quality opportunities for teachers and students to learn. They have extensive experience educating preservice and practising teachers and leading curriculum and research consultancies for government agencies, teacher associations and schools.