Categorized | Feature, Interviews

Financial literacy should be part of an equitable education system Prakash Amarasooriya

Posted on 01 April 2017 by admin

Ontario launches plan to teach high school kids financial skills

Ontario is rolling out pilot projects at 28 high schools aimed at revamping the Grade 10 careers course and laying the groundwork for financial literacy to become part of the curriculum.

About 700 students will be involved in the pilots, running until June, and their feedback along with teacher input, will be instrumental in redesigning the new course, expected to be in place for the fall of 2018.

While financial skills are a centrepiece, students will also learn entrepreneurship and digital literacy in addition to career and life planning.

The pilots represent “the first step in modernizing our careers curriculum,” and will make it more relevant by linking students’ goals for post-secondary school and the workplace with money skills like budgeting, planning and saving that will help them get there, Hunter told the Star.

They will cost the ministry $142,000.

“We want to make financial literacy relatable to students, and to their experience,” says Minister of Education Hunter, noting she’s heard from many youth who wished they’d learned more practical information in the mandatory careers course, which is accompanied by a half-course in civics.

“This is a good first step,” says Prakash Amarasooriya, who led the Toronto Youth Cabinet initiative and petition pushing for financial literacy in high school.

But he notes there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure teens leave school with the basic money knowledge they need.

Amarasooriya, 24, says his own lack of money sense added a lot of stress to his teen years after both parents lost their jobs and, fearing for the future, he took on five part-time jobs.

Amarasooriya’s commitment to helping youth learn about money comes from experience. He was in Grade 10 at Weston Collegiate Institute when both parents suddenly lost their jobs in the auto industry.

“It was one of the biggest shocks I ever received in my life, that money wasn’t permanent,” he says.

Panicked about how he, his parents and 11-year-old brother would manage, he juggled five different part-time jobs throughout high school, including as a grocery store cashier, in data entry and teaching taekwondo, even though he was enrolled in a demanding international baccalaureate program and involved in extra-curriculars.

His marks started to fall and by the beginning of Grade 12 it was “the loneliness point in my life” as he tried to keep his marks up, manage his jobs and sock away money for the future.

He didn’t know how to budget or plan, and even after his parents found work again, kept earning as much as he could, at great cost to his mental health and his marks.

“I saved a lot instead of saving smart,” says Amarasooriya, who graduated from York University in 2015 with a degree in kinesiology.

Working in the bank, he soon realized his own lack of basic money knowledge is widespread. He sees young customers daily who don’t know the difference between chequing and savings accounts, and people of all ages living off overdraft or credit cards with no understanding of the interest rates they get charged.

Some financial experts argue budgeting should be taught and modeled by parents, rather than in a classroom. But Amarasooriya says parents like his, who are working class immigrants without any financial expertise, aren’t able to do that.

School is where all kids should have equal access, and Grade 10 is the ideal time, he says. Students have part-time jobs, start saving for post-secondary education and are a couple of years away from having a credit card and a student loan.

Teaching kids to manage their finances goes hand-in-hand with learning about careers and “if you don’t know how to survive in the world, that (career) doesn’t matter.”

 He currently works in a bank and meets young clients who don’t know the difference between a chequing account and a savings account.

Financial literacy should be part of an equitable education system, he says, because not all families have the wherewithal to teach it adequately to their children.

Both money skills and digital literacy are critical tools for high school kids and subjects they’re eager to learn about, says Kimia Kamarhie, who teaches careers at Thornhill Secondary School and is part of the pilots.

“Those two modules being tested right now by us are a great advantage because these are life skills students will carry forward even after high school,” says Kamarhie, who took two days of teacher training last month and has started to develop the lesson plans she will begin using in April.

Teachers working on the pilots, which include eight GTA schools, will get an additional two days training in May and are already comparing notes and sharing strategies through a virtual learning network.

The opportunity to provide real-life, relevant learning and boost financial literacy “can only produce good results,” says Thornhill Secondary principal David McAdam, adding that’s why the school applied to be part of the pilot.

He applauds the process for giving students input into designing the course and a voice in what material should be included and effective ways to learn it.

Toronto financial literacy expert Tricia Barry welcomed the move, saying it’s long overdue.

But she argues that mandated financial literacy lessons need to be introduced much earlier, by Grade 6, including incorporating the concepts into math class.

“Elementary students should not be left behind,” says Barry, executive director of Money School Canada, which runs workshops for children, youth and parents.

In 2011, the province announced that financial literacy would be embedded in subjects taught in grades 4 through 12 such as math, social studies and world studies.

But a study Barry co-authored and released last fall concluded the result has been “haphazard, inconsistent” learning for elementary kids, and a lack of content dealing with core money management concepts or vocabulary.

The gaps “are enormous” between what expert task forces have called for over the years, and what the ministry has put in place, says Barry.

Amarasooriya agrees that earlier is better but says getting financial literacy into Grade 10 careers was a logical fit and seemed to be “the path of least resistance” for making long-overdue changes quickly.

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