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Why isn’t financial literacy taught in school?

If there's one positive by-product of the 2008 financial crisis, it's the heightened sense that Canadians need to take personal responsibility for their financial future.

And experts agree: Financial literacy is a critical tool -- an essential life skill -- that Canadian youth need to learn. But it's a skill that is often learned too late. Canada's student debt level has reached a staggering $15 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Students, with the average student graduating with a debt load of $27,747, according to TD Canada Trust.

"There seems to be very little financial literacy that's taking place today for our children," says Raymond Chun, senior vice-president, everyday banking and payments, TD Canada Trust. "That's the place people really need to start thinking about: educating our youth around financial literacy so they can start saving early for their post-secondary education."

And while Canucks are taking their finances more seriously, consumer debt in this county has hit an eight-year high. And for those who have been diligent savers, longevity risk has complicated retirement plans, leading experts to call for annuity reform in the face of record-high levels of bankruptcy among seniors.

It's a dicey situation that prompted University of Calgary professor Norma Nielson to remark, "Canadians have always been a little better at saving than some other places in the world but I don't know we've spent enough time educating our citizens about how to spend it once they get there."

Personal finance in the classroom

Genevieve Tran has a possible solution and its one that begins in the classroom.

Tran is a certified elementary school teacher in the province of Ontario with a Masters of Education degree from the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She has been teaching financial literacy abroad in Japan for a handful of years, as well as, developing curricula for university courses in that country. Now, she's back in her hometown Toronto looking to raise awareness of what she regards as a glaring need in our elementary and secondary school systems: financial knowledge.

"I've always been interested in teaching students about money. It wasn't officially on the curriculum (at the elementary school she taught at in Tokyo) but I was always thinking about the things they'd actually need to learn," she explains. "Finance and economics, no matter how old a student is, has to factor in there."

Tran says though schools in Ontario -- through the Ontario Government's Ministry of Education -- mandated a financial literacy program in 2011 that targets students in grades four and above, few teachers are aware of it and the program lacks an assessment component and accountability in terms of whether it is administered properly.

"I was very happy to learn Ontario is doing this but when you look at the curriculum document, it's just a cut and paste of previous chunks of other curricula. It's not directly related to financial literacy," she says. "A lot of my teacher friends here in Ontario have never even heard of it. Teachers know this subject is important but from what I'm hearing, they haven't been consulted at all. "

Mary Jane McNamara, central co-ordinating principal, teaching and learning, at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), says financial literacy encompasses much more than personal finance and is a topic that teachers already cover.

"Financial literacy is embedded in the curriculum from grades four through 12. It's addressed in all subject areas rather than being a specific curriculum document," she explains. "So for instance, if you're an art teacher, you would consult the 'Scope and Sequence' document to determine where financial literacy could be highlighted in connection with art.

"It's bigger and broader than just personal finance. It's touching on problem-solving, critical thinking and analysis, inquiry communication, all related to financial literacy."

It also takes time for all teachers and school boards to digest newly issued guidelines, McNamara says of Ontario's financial literacy program.

"The Ministry will say last year was a 'building awareness year' and that's what we as a board were charged with," she says. "In terms of moving forward, we want to build on that awareness and build-in a more deeper approach to financial literacy in all areas."

If educators agree that financial literacy is a key component of a child's education, why hasn't a separate curriculum been developed? McNamara tells Yahoo! Canada Finance that prior to the Ontario Government's 2011 mandate, there was a provincial committee charged with gauging what was happening nationally in terms of all of society's financial literacy.

"This group came up with a resource called "A Sound Investment". It's a very good document that focuses on planning ahead in terms of what we should be doing in Ontario's schools to address financial literacy," she adds. "That provided direction to the (Ontario) Ministry (of Education) in terms of how it should happen as opposed to a specific course because it's so broad a topic."

Fair enough but one can't help but to wonder why it took until 2011 for Ontario to introduce its financial education guidelines for teachers. There was a recession in the early 2000s followed by the Great Recession of 2008.

"The work on financial literacy education began in November 2009 when the then Minister of Education asked the Curriculum Council to examine the issue of financial literacy in the Ontario curriculum," says Gary Wheeler, spokesperson, Ministry of Education in Toronto. "In Ontario, the financial literacy education initiative starts in grade 4. This is consistent with many other jurisdictions' approach to financial literacy education."

Financial literacy resources available for all ages

Julie Hauser, spokesperson for the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) in Ottawa, says everyone, not just Canadian youth, could stand to benefit from increasing their financial prowess.

"One of the issues is understanding what financial literacy is; which is having the ability and understanding to make financial decisions that best meet your own needs," she says.

Part of the FCAC's mandate is to promote consumer awareness of the obligations of financial institutions to consumers and to foster consumer understanding of financial services and related issues. In 2008, the FCAC launched a freely available Web-based program called "The City" to schools, students, and families nationwide that aims to provide effective ways to manage money.

"It's a learning program that teaches financial skills. Schools across Canada can use it in class to help students better understand how to manage their personal finances," she adds. "It's a teacher-led program that introduces and explains basic financial concepts. It goes through the concepts of managing a budget, looking at expenses and savings vehicles, and it gives tips on how to cut down on personal expenses.

"The age group (of those accessing the program) varies widely. It's not just students that are taking it."

Financial literacy begins at home

Tran adds teaching financial literacy to youth shouldn't be the sole responsibility of school boards and individual teachers.

"There's nothing stopping parents, neighbourhoods or communities, from initiating some form of financial literacy and don't be ashamed of the lack of your own knowledge," she says. "You have this opportunity to impart some level of understanding you've learned onto kids … for them to be (suddenly) subjected to post-secondary and credit card debt in their early twenties is way too late. They have no education in entrepreneurism and that will only stifle our country's economy by having these people go through life only colouring between the lines."

The FCAC will also introduce a new program this autumn called "Your Financial Toolkit". Hauser says it's been designed to help adults better manage their personal finances. To that end, the FCAC offers a number of free educational programs for educators to utilize.

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