Israel Putting Bankers in Classrooms to Teach Finance and Economics

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Education Minister Naftali Bennett does an activity with students at the Yavni'eli school in Haifa, December 29, 2016.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett does an activity with students at the Yavni'eli school in Haifa, December 29, 2016.Credit: GPO

Israeli teachers will cede their classrooms to bankers in November, under a new program aimed at giving the country’s financially illiterate teenagers a basic course in finance and economics.

“Financial Education Month in the School System” seeks to introduce ninth-graders to banking, saving, investment and general economic concepts, with teachers drawn from employees in the country’s banks. The program is a partnership between the Education Ministry and the Bank of Israel.

But critics are already expressing concern about the kind of education the bankers will give, especially as ninth-graders are at the legal minimum age of 14 for opening at a bank account in Israel and could be influenced by the banker who comes to their school.

“Even if the goal is laudable, it’s unacceptable that banks, which have definite commercial interests, will be able to go into the schools and teach material that could directly benefit them,” said Meretz party Chairwoman Zehava Golan, who asked Education Minister Naftali Bennett to cancel the program.

No one disputes that when it comes to money and personal finance, Israeli adolescents are at the bottom of the class. Among students in 13 Organization for Economic Cooperation Development member states in 2014, Israelis scored 476 on an exam with a range of 200 to 800. That was 24 points less than the average for the 13 participating states.

“High-school graduates need to understand basic financial concepts. This program, along with others, will give students fundamental essential concepts,” said Education Ministry Director General Shmuel Abuhav.

The only financial education course currently offered by the Education Ministry is designed for 10th-graders and is taught at just 106 schools nationwide. But the new program will also not be compulsory and will only be taught in schools that want it, the ministry said.

The absence of a nationwide financial curriculum is exacerbated by the increasing complexity of financial planning for Israelis. Workers must now choose their own retirement plans, rather than being able to rely on their trade union’s pension programs. Consumer lending and investment options have proliferated.

This year the government introduced a savings program for children, giving parents additional investment decisions to make.

“Controlling expenses, knowing how different payments are made, wise consumer finance is the kind of knowledge we want teenagers to acquire as they reach the age when they can open a bank account,” said Hedva Ber, the Bank of Israel’s supervisor of banks and herself a career banker.

But critics question whether the bank employees are the ones to fill the gap. For most teenagers, the lessons taught by their local banker will be the first time they learn their financial ABCs, like how to read a contract, convert currency and learn concepts like interest rates and inflation, which means the bankers will have an outsized influence.

Critics say that if ordinary teachers don’t have the skills and trainings, then officials from the Finance Ministry or the Israel Securities Authority should conduct the classes.

The Bank of Israel says it’s alert to the conflicts of interest and is taking step to make sure that the banker teachers don’t also become teacher salespeople.

The central bank has designed the content and says it will ensure that it is taught the same in all schools to ensure the standards are kept high and the lessons objective, officials said. A committee of officials from the Bank of Israel and the Education Ministry and parent and student representatives will approve the content. Bankers won’t be able to display logos or anything else associated with their employers.

“This is an activity under the complete supervision of the Education Minstry and the Bank of Israel. During the classes, a teacher will always be present in the classroom and in some cases a representative of the banks supervisors office or the Education Minstry,” said the Bank of Israel in response to queries.

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