“Ideas are no one’s monopoly,” Dhirubhai Ambani, the Indian-born founder of Reliance Industries once said. If thinking you have all the answers can be fatal in business, then it has the potential to become as serious when it comes to delivering public services, particularly against the backdrop of cuts and with no end in sight to austerity.
In such a climate, while the funding can always be reduced, in theory there is no limit to the number of ideas. As such, and given the environment that public services now operate in, it makes no sense to dismiss them without having fully considered them first.
Ambani’s quote came to mind last week when, in a Senedd exchange on my Financial Education and Exclusion (Wales) Bill between colleague Simon Thomas AM and Jeff Cuthbert, Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, he said he was of the view that the current non-legislative measures his Government was taking to improve financial capability were “satisfactory”.
He later rowed back from this a little, saying “we can always do better”. But his view echoed one given by the Welsh Government to the BBC earlier that week: “We don’t believe a new Bill and more bureaucracy is the answer”.
This amounts to a fundamental misreading of the proposals contained within the Bill (Cymraeg yma) which is designed to place duties on Ministers rather than schools to ensure pupils receive proper and useful financial education. It behoves Ministers to think creatively in bringing together schools and a plethora of outside organisations – some that I have met with – that can deliver financial education rather than place additional burdens on already busy teachers.
Above all, it should address the postcode lottery variations we are currently seeing in the delivery of financial education. Incredibly, the Welsh Government said: “Financial education for young people aged seven to 16 has been part of the school curriculum in Wales since 2008.” This was in response to submissions from over 80 high schools and comprehensives in Wales, which found that the time devoted to the subject in both mathematics and PSE lessons varies from 180 hours to nothing. In one case, two schools not 10 miles apart had a variance of as much as 18 hours teaching at one key stage (full results here/yma).
We simply cannot continue with a system whose success relies upon the enthusiasm of individual teachers. Furthermore, there was some evidence that schools in areas of deprivation provide less financial education – something that should be of concern to Education Minister Huw Lewis, who is committed to addressing inequality and poverty through his portfolio.
Developing a workforce full of financially capable school leavers would make Wales more attractive to inward investment. This, in turn, would mitigate the impact of offshoring that Wales and the UK has experienced in recent times. Furthermore, this all lies within the competence of the National Assembly. In other words, we don’t need to seek more powers. We can do this now.
All of which makes the Welsh Government’s position somewhat perplexing. Without a doubt, there will be work to do to make sure any new measures that are passed as part of this Bill fit with existing arrangements, such as the national Literacy and Numeracy Framework, and with any forthcoming developments, like the introduction of two maths GCSEs, where some of these proposals would have a natural home.
But that’s the challenge for deliverers of public services. We are paid to make services work and ensure their benefits are delivered, whatever the economic climate. In fact, we should be striving to deliver services that improve economic circumstances for people and their communities where possible.
The Bill already has considerable public support, with 97 per cent of people surveyed saying they would welcome increased financial education provision in schools. It may well be that the Welsh Government finds real issues that perhaps the rest of us wouldn’t appreciate, and which require further work to make this Bill effective. I’m happy to proceed in that way, because it’s the outcome that matters.
But to dismiss the proposals without having studied them in detail, and on the basis that we don’t need further law, is a luxury that no public service deliverer can afford.