Financial skills are being taught in schools – just in different ways than you might expect. Nick Thomson from Te Ara Ahunga Ora Retirement Commission tells Reweti Kohere about it.
Nick Thomson used to think TikTok was only about viral dances and singing sea shanties. But with personal finance content on the platform is attracting nearly 5 billion views, the director of financial capability at Te Ara Ahunga Ora Retirement Commission started taking notice.
A recent survey suggests more rangatahi are turning to social media platforms over schools for advice on how to manage their personal finances, which prompted BetterSaver founder Joe Taylor to call on the government to make financial literacy a core school subject.
Taylor’s right that personal finance isn’t mandatory in schools, says Thomson, but that doesn’t mean financial literacy isn’t being taught. Since 2017, the commission has been embedding in schools the first government-backed nationwide programme equipping students with the necessary skills to navigate a world flush with cash, credit cards and digital currencies.
So far, three-quarters of schools are registered for the “Sorted in Schools, Te whai hua – kia ora!” programme while two-thirds are using it. More than 300 teachers and kaiako have completed professional development workshops too. The most recent NZCER evaluation report gave Sorted in Schools a pass mark, noting it’s performing well and having a positive impact. But the progress of the parallel kura Māori programme is being impeded by systemic challenges, such as teacher recruitment and retention and access to digital devices.
I spoke with Thomson about how students and teachers are benefitting from Sorted in Schools, the “perfect recipe of education” and the two sides of the TikTok coin. (This Q&A has been edited for clarity).
Kia ora Nick. Schools and kura can choose to use the commission’s programme but who makes that choice? Is it up to individual teachers? Head of departments? Principals even?
In some schools, teachers can get it into the classroom because they have more control over what the curriculum or the classroom activities look like. Some heads of department have heard about our programme, have learned all about it and then have engaged their teachers. At another level, some principals have been seeing things happen in this space and have engaged. So [it’s] at multiple levels. We’ve always tried to figure out what’s the best way to get into schools. Should you start at the top? Should you start [in] the middle? Should you start with teachers? It’s actually a big variety.
Once we’re in the school we run webinars and workshops throughout the regions in New Zealand, but we also offer those teachers one-on-one support.
What has persuaded the 67% of schools and kura using the programme to participate?
Because we evaluate the programme every year, it’s not just about the product and the resources and the website. It’s about the support model. We have two specialists – one that is focused specifically on Māori medium education in kura and our other specialist is focused on secondary schools or English medium education. They are ex-teachers so they have been in the classroom, they can resonate with teachers, they understand the challenges in the classroom. It’s meant every single school that has engaged with us has been able to figure out how to use the programme in the right way because there’s no one recipe.
We’ve got 550 schools and kura throughout New Zealand – it’s probably a bit more than that – but every one of them operates in the curriculum a bit differently. Figuring out that perfect puzzle and then being able to apply the product in that environment has been the recipe for our success.
You’re not only reaching students, you’re also helping improve the financial capability of our teachers, which goes back to a broader point that New Zealanders’ level of understanding isn’t where it needs to be.
In our research, we’ve found that New Zealanders are really good with the basics of financial capability – we’re pretty good at budgetting and we’re pretty good at keeping track [of] our money. However, the more complicated financial capability things – perhaps investing, long-term savings and particularly understanding things like KiwiSaver or [another] investment product, the terms and conditions and all the lingo that goes with them – that gets quite daunting for many New Zealanders. It gets even more daunting for women and for Māori and for Pasifika people. At the commission, we’ve developed a national strategy for financial capability and the big goal of that is to work together [with other partners] to help New Zealanders understand more about money. We’re trying to get down to the basics of making sure there’s consistent content out there.
What’s your thoughts on social media platforms like TikTok becoming a source of financial information?
I think TikTok is wonderful. It’s great for young New Zealanders, it’s where they go, it’s bite-sized content. It’s like YouTube – they love YouTube – and we know this. The thing that’s most important is that they’re getting really [good]-quality information.
How do you ensure that?
That’s really hard because you could have, for example, an influencer that has a really large audience that might be sponsored to push a product or they may not have strong financial literacy skills but they’re passing on information to a really large audience. That’s the thing that I’m most worried about – [students] getting bad advice. The commission’s got to consider: if that’s where young New Zealanders are going, then how do we get in there and how do we potentially use those platforms in a good way? And how do we continue to develop our brand for that audience so they can connect with it and know the content is supported by the government, is independent – we’re not pushing any products – and is also trustworthy? When content is independent, trustworthy and good-quality, it’s the perfect recipe of education, isn’t it? But when it’s not, that’s where the risks pop up.
The other side of the coin is ensuring students are equipped with the skills and knowledge to judge what’s reliable and what’s questionable.
I agree. How do you make sure the content you’re viewing is robust, is credible and is good advice for you? Rewind back many years ago and people may have had this advice face-to-face and the audience size would have been much smaller. But when you’re on a platform like this, it’s so accessible and the audiences are huge. The concern for me is, particularly for young New Zealanders who just don’t know any better but are using these platforms to gain that knowledge – how do they ensure they’re getting the right information before they make a bad decision? There’s another piece in there around equipping them to understand the information may not be perfect or correct or credible.