Opinion: Financial services are passing the buck

The term PR stunt is bandied about with depressing regularity by the media, particularly when a more incisive analysis proves elusive. But this was the phrase that sprang to mind last week on hearing that, in response to the consumer debt crisis, the Institute of Financial Services has launched an A-level in personal financial management.

To be fair, launching educational initiatives is what the IFS is set up to do. But surely its governing body - including senior executives from Nationwide, Barclays, the Co-operative Bank, Lloyds TSB and Bank of Scotland - must realise this could be read as a monumental piece of buck-passing.

The level of financial literacy in this country is appalling. According to an IFS-commissioned MORI poll, four in ten people don't understand financial products. But surely the industry needs to take some responsibility for better communicating the benefits and, crucially, the pitfalls of its products.

It is hard to imagine another product whose use might necessitate an A-level qualification. What next? An AS-level in automotive, cosmetic or holiday purchasing? (Although given the obesity crisis, a GCSE in grocery shopping is no doubt being cooked up somewhere in Whitehall.)

As a parent, I welcome efforts made as part of the general curriculum but wouldn't be thrilled if my offspring used one of their A-level options to study 'the achievement of three personal aspirations ... an unusual car, a holiday of a lifetime, an early retirement date etc'.

The A-level is on offer at 99 schools and next week, the IFS is holding a summit to encourage a roll-out across the UK as (to quote the press release) 'unless tackled, this financial ignorance will likely perpetuate falling savings levels and increase the risk of financial misselling'.

In other words youngsters need to take an exam to ensure that they aren't being ripped off by the financial services industry!

In the meantime, vulnerable individuals such as 21-year-old Scott Smith are allowed to run up debts that lead them to take their own lives.

So where does the responsibility lie? The select committee looking at this case say that banks need to share credit histories and are highly critical of the 'secret' penalty charges that the industry imposes on borrowers. Penalty charges that you'd probably need to sit a degree to understand.

The whole situation calls for greater clarity, but not just for sixth-formers who might, or might not, pick this A-level option. This kind of stunt gives corporate social responsibility a bad name.

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