The case for financial education in schools

Experts say students need dedicated financial education. But money is about far more than notes and coins these days, writes Will Brodie.

Writing in The Age, academics Peter Saffin, Dr Carly Sawatzki and Dr Jill Brown insisted schools must prioritise financial education because of an “increase in financial scams, banks and financial institutions being banned from providing branded programs to schools and a new breed of ‘finfluencers’ looking set to slip into their place”.

Other challenges faced by students include: the rise of cryptocurrency; the shift in responsibility for retirement planning moving to individuals; social media shysters; and ultra-low interest rates encouraging speculation.

In Australia, the discussion about financial literacy reignited when the Commonwealth Bank’s Dollarmites school banking program was axed in NSW in late October 2021, effective from the start of 2022, following similar bans in the ACT, Queensland, and Victoria.

Mathematics teacher Eddie Woo, host of ABC’s finance show Teenage Boss, said children and teenagers are constantly assailed by advertisements for money management apps and buy-now-pay-later services, but rarely handle cash, and students have “a completely skewed sense of how much things cost”.

On the other hand, students are financially active from a young age and “observe financial transactions when shopping, make purchasing decisions using cash and gift cards, and have probably purchased game-based currency,” wrote Saffin, Sawatzki and Brown.

Avoiding the dark side

They say it’s important to prepare students to “transact safely online and via apps and read and interpret digital financial statements like what they’ll see via mobile banking, Medicare and MyGov”.

“Fintech is changing the way we transact and manage our money. A desire to fit in, cashless spending, and easy access to credit can lead to costly mistakes for teenagers and young adults.”

They say studying the pitfalls of modern finances benefits students. Cue horror stories of shopaholics, addiction to video games (and their in-game purchases) and sports betting. Exploring the “dark side” of finance develops scepticism, resilience and “an ethics of care in how they use money”.

Young people must also learn to identify and assess the risks and rewards associated with more complex financial products and services.

Real-life experiences

The Australian curriculum includes aspects of finance in various subjects, but Saffin, Sawatzki and Brown say they are unrelated to real-life experiences, and teachers “tend to lack confidence and knowledge of best practice”.

They want programs taught by qualified educators and support to prioritise financial education from policymakers and curriculum and content developers.

More than 100,000 Australians agreed, signing a petition launched by Scott Pape, author of the bestseller Barefoot Investor to bring a “financial revolution” to Australian schools.

Lecturers Emily Ross and Margaret Marshman say the financial literacy ‘sub-strand’ which currently exists within the Australian Curriculum is “clearly not enough”.

“The financial literacy performance of Australian 15-year-olds in the OECD’s 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) financial literacy assessment fell by 15 points (or half a year of schooling) since 2012,” they wrote for The Conversation.

“And yet, the draft of the revised Australian Curriculum downgrades financial literacy even further.”

They fear the current structure, which lacks explicit guidelines in the curriculum, means financial teaching will be ‘haphazard’ across schools, and classrooms.

“If the Australian Curriculum doesn’t value financial maths, then other states and territories can choose not to include it.

Embedded in maths

She says the Australian Curriculum must “embed” financial literacy concepts into maths lessons so kids will grow up with the financial knowledge they need “to make important decisions and participate meaningfully in society and the economy”.

In the US, 24 states now require that high schools offer a personal finance course, up from just seven states in 2000.

“Financial coach” Kalen Bruce says 80 percent of US adults say they could use help with their finances, and 99 percent of them want financial education in schools.

Financial journalist William Jolly, writing for comparison site, quotes a 2019 ME Bank survey which found 40 percent of Australians wished they’d been taught more about money as a child, 60 percent are stressed by financial issues and 75 percent of us believe our schools are not doing enough “to teach essential financial skills to the next generations”.

Catherine Attard, Associate Professor in Mathematics Education at Western Sydney University, agrees that financial literacy needs to be made more explicit in the Australian Curriculum.

A lot to learn

She says students leaving school must understand “basic money management, the financial implications of subscriptions to services such as gym memberships, mobile phone plans and even TV streaming services.

“They need to understand credit card debt, buy-now-pay-later schemes, student loans, superannuation, taxation and of course the traditional lending structures of personal loans and mortgages.”

Teenagers are assailed by ads for money apps and buy-now-pay-later services, but they rarely handle cash. So they have a skewed sense of how much things cost.

She suggests secondary courses cover budgeting, lending (personal loans, credit cards, mortgages), tax, superannuation, and consumer literacy (understanding ‘best buys’ etc).

“For primary students, simpler concepts such as budgeting, consumer literacy (looking at best buys relating to shopping, mobile phones, etcZ) and simple borrowing concepts could be integrated into existing curricula.”

Dr Carly Sawatzki, Lecturer of Education at Deakin University, also contributed to an ATO report which concluded financial literacy should be its own subject.

“Students stand to benefit from an explicit focus on economics and finance at school and dedicated subject offerings are a great way to achieve this,” Dr Sawatzki told

New threats

“Finance topics are often presented in ways that are dry and boring. Yet schools and teachers seem highly motivated to shake things up and recognise that students enjoy and benefit from lessons exploring economic and financial issues.

“Government-funded teacher professional learning, together with the development of topical, innovative resources would be valued by schools and teachers.”

Dr Sawatzki says research shows that young people distrust banks and credit cards, and worry about personal debt, but they find buy-now-pay-later services like Afterpay “very appealing”.

And there are new threats in the same vein. A national survey by found 8 percent of Australians — equivalent to more than 1.5 million people — have used a pay-on-demand service like Beforepay to access their salary ahead of time.

“They’re payday lenders on the internet,” the chief executive of Financial Counselling Australia, Fiona Guthrie, told AAP.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission confirmed pay-on-demand products like Beforepay fall outside responsible lending obligations, which means there is no legal requirement to check affordability before a person signs up.

Guthrie said pay-on-demand services inevitably target people who may have financial literacy issues.

Dr Sawatzki says such “financial and technological innovation” is changing how financial topics are taught at school. That includes lessons on comparing the fee structure of buy-now-pay-later services with “traditional” credit cards.

She says improving financial literacy in schools helps society as well as individuals.

“On an individual basis, our young people will leave school being able to make sound financial decisions relating to their personal finances,” she said.

“Such decisions may have long term impacts on their life options.

“Similarly, a strong understanding of consumer and financial literacy can lead our young people to question unfair structures in our society, leading to improved, equitable systems.”