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We owe children a good education

The proposal to teach financial responsibility to kids shows schools have replaced learning with social engineering.

Kevin Rooney

Topics Politics

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British politicians, it seems, just can’t resist fiddling with the school curriculum. The new year was less than a week old when it was announced that primary-school children as young as five are to have lessons in how to manage their money.

Part of a UK government move to make Personal Health and Social Education (PHSE) a compulsory part of primary teaching, a similar programme has already been introduced in secondary schools. Known variously as ‘Financial Capability’ or ‘Financial Management’, students are instructed on how to manage money in a bid to create adults better able to manage their cash.

Ed Balls, the UK schools secretary, has told schools to teach children how to ‘spend with restraint, borrow within sensible limits and save prudently’. Championing the new plan, which will be compulsory in primary schools from September 2011, Balls said ‘we need to prepare young people for the complexities of the modern world’.

Supporters of the new policy argue that such classes in bank accounts, budgeting, credit cards, mortgages and loans are more essential than ever in the context of our current economic problems. In a well-orchestrated launch, television crews were even offered young children to welcome the announcement. The shy, awkward six- and seven-year-olds featured on BBC News struggled to string a sentence together, but seemed to be on-message about the merits of the new scheme.

For many, teaching young kids how to manage their money seems like common sense at a time when so many adults are stuggling with debt. Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, says the new lessons are welcome because ‘we have dug ourselves into a hell-hole of personal borrowing problems’. Others point to a recent study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research that found that ‘being unable to manage money harms a person’s wellbeing’ as proof that time spent with young children will pay dividends in later life.

However, I would argue passionately against using schools in this way. The original goals of schools – to transmit a body of knowledge and provide an all-rounded education – are fast being eroded in a way that is far more dangerous to society than adults failing to manage their bank accounts. Unfortunately, because government and a growing number of teachers have little faith in this original mission, a philistine project is fast emerging which is transforming schools from places of learning to sites of social engineering. Teachers today are subject to a string of instrumentally driven demands that schools should be used to tackle a range of social problems, including crime, drugs, obesity, racism, homophobia, teenage pregnancy, anti-social behaviour, political apathy and low voter turnout.

The redefinition of schools as centres of socialisation expected to solve a host of non-educational problems destroys all that is good about schools. It also relocates what are political and social problems, which should be the responsibility of politicians, to the domain of teachers. Embracing the school as an institution of social policy is downgrading learning and education.

Some will argue that schools always played a implicit role in the socialisation process and that education has always been seen as a way of moulding the next generation. This is true, but it was the transformative nature of education itself that was regarded as critical. A great education transforms pupils, allows them to overcome their circumstances and have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. For many pupils, a decent education is the only route to rise above the social problems that could limit their ability to get on in life. Yet now schools are becoming places that deliberately choose to bring these social problems into the classroom. These days you are more likely to see teenage mothers and reformed drug addicts invited into classrooms than successful historians or authors.

The real tragedy about this trend is the marked lack of resistance to it. Because many teachers and educationalists have lost sight of, and confidence in, the real purpose of education, the move to replace the more ambitious, universal questions raised by education with the banal practical questions posed by everyday life has hardly been challenged. Even Ofsted, still supposedly charged with upholding standards, now judges schools less on academic attainment than on raising participation levels, promoting community cohesion and other social goals.

The welcome for teaching financial management to pupils also chimes with the idea of ‘relevance’ in education. We are told that in order to engage young people, the curriculum should be directly relevant to their lives. But in many ways the glory of education is that it is irrelevant to day-to-day life, allowing pupils to leave aside their immediate reality in order to pursue knowledge of ancient traditions, world wars, foreign languages, literature or the wonders of science. A recent survey of the UK’s top scientists revealed that most, including many from modest working-class backgrounds, had been inspired by an amazing teacher. Marcus de Sautoy, the UK’s most famous Arsenal-supporting mathematician, tells how his maths teacher took him round the back of the bike shed not to teach him to smoke, but secretly to share advanced equations.

I very much doubt that looking to education to teach people to vote, eat better or manage their finances will work. At the very least we can say that the evidence base is weak and we can definitely say that such initiatives will do little to solve the current crisis in industry, where employers insist that it gets harder and harder to employ graduates with the basics of a good education. But even if these efforts to produce a generation of kids that can understand their credit-card statements and the pros and cons of different forms of contraception could be proved to be working, they still should have no place in the classroom.

Politicians, parents and society should tackle social problems. The role of schools is to create a well-educated generation of individuals able to enter into society with the intellectual maturity, critical skills and broader knowledge to face up to problems. Teaching five-year-olds to count the pennies in their piggy banks is unlikely to deliver that.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi called upon adults to give children the store of human knowledge. He also argued that education has been hijacked by single-issue campaign groups with little concern for pedagogy. Jennie Bristow interviewed Frank Furedi about his latest book, Wasted. Neil Davenport said education was suffering from a low level of ambition. Elsewhere, he argued that the establishment is making learning uncool. Michele Ledda felt that children ought be challenged by subjects. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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