At present I am leading a fascinating set of research studies that take me into mathematics classrooms of the full range of 5 to 18-year-olds. We are asking how the current mathematics curriculum is being experienced by teachers and learners, and how, and in what ways, they are being supported by printed and digital curriculum materials.
The national curriculum says mathematics ‘is essential to everyday life, … and necessary for financial literacy and most forms of employment’. As part of our research, I’ve recently been in two classrooms where the focus of the lesson has been to develop mathematical ideas, and everyday skills, through the use of money. What I observed shocked me into asking fundamental questions about the ways in which we as a twenty-first society educate our young people to be financially capable.
In my own childhood, activities such as trips to the corner shop to buy penny sweets, purchasing weekly ‘savings stamps’, and budgeting and paying for school meals in cash were all standard parts of our lives. And when I was teaching I introduced the use of pfeg’s excellent school materials as part of our mathematics financial education strand for 14-16 year olds (It’s now part of Young Enterprise). That was, admittedly, before GCSE assessments became so high-stakes, so it was relatively easy to decide to commit time to such activity.
So what did we evidence that so challenged me? First, I observed Year 3 (seven to eight-year-old) children using plastic coins to model transactions that included ‘finding total cost’, ‘giving change’, and working out different ways to ‘pay for things’. The resources were well-designed and the teaching sound. It worked well for some children. However, about half the class had significant difficulty – apparently because they had little familiarity with the use of coins, or conception of the ‘equivalence’ of different combinations, or of the notion of ‘change’. When I talked with a group of children afterwards, they reported a wide range of different background experiences with their families, ranging from those who said they never went shopping from home, through those who regularly went shopping with mum or dad but parents always paid, whether by cash or card, to those who regularly played Monopoly (‘sometimes it takes a very long time, but you can get really rich!’). Teachers later recalled that ‘many years ago, we had a shop in classrooms for Years 1 to 4’, but that had become squeezed out by accountability pressures.
The next week I was working with Year 10s (14 to 15-year-olds), who referenced a ‘taxes’ lesson I report here. ‘Taxes’ do not feature in the mathematics curriculum, or in most maths textbooks, but this school’s maths department aims to induct students into the use of spreadsheets, and the context their teacher had chosen to use was that of budgeting – for personal use or for event planning.
She began by asking the students about their financial experiences. Apparently none of them received pocket money or had other regular income, being ‘too busy with homework’. Just one possessed a savings account, for which she’d lost the card. And if they went shopping they’d either ‘be given’ money as they left, or the parents would pay – usually cashless. When this young teacher showed them a spreadsheet featuring her own gross income, the deduction of tax and NI, and her main items of expenditure, they showed no grasp of the concept of taxes (received as ‘a rip-off’) or of mortgages or other loans. How, the teacher asked, are such young people going to be able to manage their finances when they leave home for university or work?
This young teacher had an imminent appointment with her headteacher to discuss the school’s provision for financial education, nominally covered in PSHE – and of course different communities behave differently in relation to money.
But the juxtaposition of these two experiences made me ask questions about roles and responsibilities in the Twenty-first Century. Of course schools have a responsibility for supporting young people’s financial understanding, though this role is not obviously valued in current accountability measures. Our studies show that some emerging curriculum resources and assessments – including some accredited by the DFE – support that in a low-key way. But even in a nearly cash-free world, there is no substitute for young people having individual supported conversations, and experiences, and decision-making. with the concrete (cash!), at a level appropriate to their experience and at authentic opportunities, and from a young age.
Once they have that to build on, schools in all phases could do worse than engage in My Money Week, which takes place this year from 10-16 June: I’d argue we can’t afford not to find the time for that.
Photo: Thomas’s Pics via Creative Commons