Personal finance must be understood to ensure we do not fall prey to those who consider us an easy touch

PUBLISHED: 15:34 31 July 2017 | UPDATED: 15:28 01 August 2017

PT Barnum with Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) Picture: Contributed

PT Barnum with Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) Picture: Contributed

Michael O’Flynn has probably long since shuffled off this mortal coil, but he is still fondly remembered by a good number of those with whom he came into contact. Mr O’Flynn was one of those teachers whose occasionally unconventional methods of dispensing knowledge influenced a generation of grammar school boys during the 1970s.

This column is brought to you in association with Almary Green. Photo: Almary GreenThis column is brought to you in association with Almary Green. Photo: Almary Green

He taught maths with a passion, engaging classes with amusing anecdotes that explained the benefits of understanding differential equations (at one point I could do them in my sleep), but perhaps more significant was the extent to which he made the subject real.

MORE: Understanding personal finance can actually make you richer

One favoured method of improving our mental agility was to start a class by opening his daily newspaper, turning to the racing pages and listing the odds of various runners and riders on the board. Earlier in his career, Mr O’Flynn had worked as a bookie and the point of noting the nags running at Haydock or Ascot was to put our mental arithmetic to the test.

The lesson would begin with 20 quick-fire questions along the lines of, ‘If I put £5 each-way on x at 8/1 and it comes second, how much do I win?’ To this day, even though I only bet on the Grand National, I can calculate the returns on a combined cross-way double and each-way treble in a few seconds.

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Later, Mr O’Flynn extended into other areas including foreign exchange – sterling to francs or pesetas to deutschmarks (this was the 1970s remember) – and simple calculations of mortgage interest. The point is, he made maths engaging by relating the subject to the real world. I was reminded of this recently when I read that the Personal Finance Education Group (PFEG) had created a framework designed to help teachers improve financial literacy.

Although financial literacy has been on the national curriculum for almost three years, it is not yet deemed important enough to be a stand-alone topic. Incredibly, it is an afterthought, tagged onto something called “citizenship classes” which, according to the Association for Citizenship Teaching, “…makes a unique contribution to the development of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.” Perhaps; but does it help them understand the folly of using pay-day loan companies or accurately calculate an electricity bill when different tariffs are used?

The PFEG, correctly, wants financial literacy to be recognised as an important topic in its own right, not least because (and this is even more astonishing), the subject isn’t even on the primary school curriculum. In an age when children as young as eight have access to payment cards such as Mastercard, this is a prime example of idiocy bordering on the reckless.

The PFEG’s recommendations not only make good sense, they’re easy to teach. For instance, the body believes that by the age of five, children should be able to make simple choices about how to spend money. By nine, they’re more than capable of learning about borrowing, and by the age of eleven they should be able to undertake straightforward exchange rate calculations. By the time youngsters reach 16, they should understand the notion of fraud and be capable of identifying a scam and creating an income and expenditure budget.

All basic stuff, granted, but how valuable it is.

Recognising that many basics had fallen by the wayside, a couple of years ago, one investment platform, True Potential, initiated a free personal finance course at the Open University, a great idea which has helped thousands of people improve or fine-tune their financial education.

This is enormously important because personal finance is one area of life we simply must understand to ensure that we do not fall prey to those who might consider us an easy touch. Indeed, the PFEG reckon that an 11-year-old should be able to identify a salesman trying to influence their spending. I agree.

Mr O’Flynn justified his unconventional teaching methods (he was also a great conventional maths teacher) by reminding us of the thousands of shysters and wide-boys only too happy to relieve us of our hard-earned cash, frequently quoting Phineas T. Barnum, attributed with saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

“Don’t be that sucker,” were Mr O’Flynn’s usual parting words as he swept out of the classroom, no doubt to study the day’s form over a cup of tea in the staff room. We should note his wise words.



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Peter Sharkey read economics at the University of Bristol. He has been a company director and investor for more than 30 years.

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