Pfeg chief exec Tracey Bleakley on how financial education finally made it into schools

From September 2014 and after a lengthy campaign, UK secondary schools will teach financial education for the first time.

The decision was a victory for the Personal Finance Education Group and its chief executive Tracey Bleakley. 

Financial education was set to feature on the national curriculum before the last election but was dropped after it was bundled in with sex education and opposed by religious groups.

Bleakley says: “After the 2010 election there was a new MP, Justin Tomlinson, who started asking questions about financial education and Pfeg spotted it.

“We rang him up and asked him if he was interested in starting a campaign. We asked if we should start an all-party parliamentary group and looked into doing it.”

The APPG was set up in January 2011 and Pfeg held a meeting in Portcullis House – where most MPs’ offices are based – to start recruiting MPs. With a review of the national curriculum coming up and the country still suffering from the financial crisis, Bleakley felt the time was right. She says: “Just as we were doing it, we got a call from [Moneysavingexpert.com founder] Martin Lewis who said he was really interested too and asked if he could come along to Portcullis House.

“Funnily enough, because Martin Lewis was there and MPs wanted their picture taken with him, there was a line of them all around Portcullis House. We got more than 200 signed up and made them into a hard-working group.”

The group currently comprises 254 MPs and is the second-biggest APPG. Once up and running, it started to commission reports and lobby intensively.

Bleakley says: “I must have spent on average two days a week at Portcullis House meeting MP after MP, just giving the same message. I tried to get them excited to be a part of it, tell their constituents, ask parents if they wanted it and, if they were school governors, ask questions.”

In February 2013, after pressure from MPs, the Department for Education agreed to put financial education on the curriculum for secondary schools. Pfeg is still campaigning to get basic financial concepts taught in primary schools but it was a big win.

Bleakley spends part of her time being consulted by governments from China to the US about the benefits of the UK’s financial education policy.

But she has not always worked in finance, having studied engineering at Brunel University before repairing trains for British Rail.

She moved on to management consultancy at, among others, Price Waterhouse and Accenture and then transferred to the charitable sector.

Bleakley became director of obesity charity Mend, campaigning for children to live healthier lives. She worked there for three years before joining Pfeg in 2012.

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“When I speak to my friends who are backbenchers, I think I can achieve more in this role”

Having worked with so many politicians and helped to build the coalition, would Bleakley consider running for parliament?

She says: “When I speak to my friends who are backbenchers, I think I can achieve more in this role. We can be cross-party and I don’t have to put my energy into the Punch and Judy show.”

After numerous financial scandals in the UK, from payment protection insurance misselling to mortgage endowment shortfalls, educating consumers about money has become a hot political issue.

Bleakley believes there should be three elements for helping people to make sound financial choices: financial education in schools, the Money Advice Service to provide basic information for adults and IFAs for more complex product choices.

She says: “Financial education can teach people how to pay off their debts or not default on their mortgage. It will create more informed consumers around insurance and long-term savings products. People who wouldn’t have thought they needed these products, so wouldn’t be engaging with an IFA, will be more likely to do so to the benefit of themselves and society.”

Clearly, Bleakley values personal responsibility and consumer choice over heavy-handed Government intervention. She supports the simple products initiative and “nudge” theories such as auto-enrolment as ways of boosting people’s savings but favours education and advice.

Former FSA director Carole Sargeant’s Treasury review of simple products recommended introducing a range of basic products but Bleakley says this can only go so far. She says: “There are always going to be products that you will want to ask an expert about. It’s not even that it’s complicated but you might just want the access to the best deals on the market.

“I run a financial education charity but I still have an IFA. You will never get pensions or Isas simple enough because we’re all aspirational and competitive to get the best deals on the market. Companies are competitive too. It’s why there is a need for IFAs.”

On auto-enrolment, Bleakley believes the opt-out option is crucial and thinks introducing compulsory savings would be wrong as it would remove consumer responsibility.

The political debate has shifted from auto-enrolment of pensions to income protection and other employer products. A very senior DWP source told Money Marketing that the Government is open to a debate over auto-enrolment for IP schemes.

Bleakley believes employers could sell more IP if employees wanted it and argues for more workplace savings schemes. She says: “Employers could offer share schemes or deduct an amount from wages and put it in a savings plan, whether negotiated by the employer or employees have created their own.

“They could take it out and manage it for their staff or put in a percentage to create a regular savings habit. There is research showing the impact that unmanageable debt has on stress, work performance and absence rates. If you are encouraging people to take out protection products or build up savings for resilience, it can only be a benefit.”

Pfeg receives no Government money and is funded solely by donations from financial services firms and banks. Firms can sponsor Pfeg research, initiatives or teacher training, or volunteer to assist in schools.

There are concerns that children could be exposed to branding at an early age but Bleakley says Pfeg has a tough code of conduct. She says: “We are very, very clear about our code of conduct and no branding must ever go to a child. If you sponsor a resource, it can be shown on the teaching pack who’s paid for it but no branded material can go to a child.”

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Born: Bolton

Lives: Blackheath

Education: Engineering degree, Brunel University; MBA Durham University

Career: April 2012-present: chief executive, Pfeg; May 2009-April 2012: UK director, Mend; December 2006 to May 2009: change management practice manager, Edenbrook; August 2005-December 2006: programme manager, ITV; April 2000-August 2005: project director, Sysao; March 1998-April 2000: consultant, Accenture; September 1996-March 1998: consultant, Price Waterhouse

Likes: Sunshine, Tottenham Hotspur

Dislikes: People who won’t listen and evolve their ideas

Drives: I rent a car when I need to

Book: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Musician: The Beatles

Career ambition: To help young people make the most of their opportunities

Life ambition: To be a nice person

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… doing something else to help young people