The banks broke the country. It’s a bit rich allowing them into schools

TURN on the radio or pick up a newspaper and you might just notice that there is an inquiry tasked with finding out why this State was nearly destroyed by its banks. It is in this context that I ask the question: why are Bank of Ireland (BOI) and Allied Irish Bank (AIB) running banks in our schools?

The banks broke the country. It’s a bit rich allowing them into schools

I am not making this up. Many secondary schools have ‘school banks’ on their premises. These are run by students under the supervision of the bank. There were 180 AIB school banks set up this year. BOI partners with as many as 400 secondary schools and set up its first school bank in 2011.

The Bank of Ireland model has six students, who are ‘interviewed’ by the bank to become its staff in the school. So you have the classic Moonie-style trick of getting a community to recruit from within itself.

Typically, the school bank opens one lunch-time a week in a communal area, such as the canteen. Students can open accounts with as little as €5 and there are targets for sign-ups. One student told me his school bank dispensed sweets to those who signed up.

Sweets are one thing. Cash is another. Schools are incentivised with hard cash to get students to set up accounts with Bank of Ireland. The bank’s website lists the incentives, which range from €250 for 25 students signed up, to €2,000 for 200 students signed up. You don’t have to be a banker to work out that bigger, richer schools will get more money from their bank than the smaller, poorer schools.

But that’s not what’s outrageous about this campaign. What’s really outrageous is that the school is ‘bribed’ to facilitate the bank to attract students to open accounts with them. People exactly like those students, but 20 years older or more, are now crippled with Bank of Ireland mortgages they struggle to pay on a punitive standard variable rate that caused protest at the bank’s AGM this very week.

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AIB is up to almost exactly the same trick, except they’ve introduced competition. AIB’s Build a Bank Challenge, which was won this year by a team from Presentation secondary school, Tralee, awards a top prize of €5,000 for the school with the winning team. AIB’s Richard Pym said at the awards ceremony in Dublin, earlier this month, that all the participants this year had demonstrated “strong business and influencing skills”.

I hope nothing I’m saying takes away from the justifiable pride of the finalists, and I know that the future of the country is in the hands of talented children like them. But that’s why it’s so important they understand that banks are commercial enterprises run for profit so considerable that Richard Pym reportedly earns €7,000 a week.

Bankers are skilled and banks should be used, but with extreme caution and vigilance, exercised both by individuals and by the political system.

I don’t know how that can ever happen if children don’t get a robust training in personal finance from an independent source — such as the new Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, which has made a start in this space. Such training for every child would have been far more effective than the politicised show trial that is the banking inquiry in ensuring we never have another banking crash.

Instead, we have allowed financial education in many of our schools to become riddled with the influence of the banks. The Dublin People crowed over a picture of Build a Bank competitors from Mount Anville, Dublin, that it “links directly to the business curriculum.” At the launch of AIB Build a Bank, in St. Brendan’s community school, Birr, Co Offaly, a couple of years ago, the school’s website quoted the principal that three former contestants had “scored” over 600 points in the Leaving Certificate.

Both AIB and BOI offer a suite of education resources to schools, including, in the case of Bank of Ireland, “field trips” that don’t go anywhere near a field, but, rather, behind the counter of the local Bank of Ireland branch. And they both infliltrate schools in other ways, including through sport. The Kerry Gaelic football star, Colm ‘The Gooch’ Cooper is an AIB ‘youth ambassador’ and visits most of the schools who register for the Build a Bank challenge in the course of the year, offering advice on “motivational techniques, health, nutrition, the importance of a balanced lifestyle and GAA skills training.” Though quite what hurling has to do with banking is anyone’s guess.

AIB sponsors sports kit in some schools, while Bank of Ireland sponsors rugby kit, playing to the stereotype of the Protestant bank, the sponsor of Leinster and Munster rugby. Bank of Ireland Northern Ireland has tiered rugby incentives: open a school bank and get kit; open 50 school accounts and get a rugby masterclass with three Ulster rugby players; open 150 school accounts and win a match-day in Ravenhill for 150 students and 15 teachers — to supervise, you understand — complete with a meet-and-greet from an Ulster rugby player.

A media relations official in Bank of Ireland told me that this engagement with schools is coming from “customer demand”, because the older school children want a phone and an ATM card and are “all banked.” She agreed that the bank wanted to “brand build with personal customers”, but said that other banks did it, too, as did the credit unions.

All this is no doubt true. But why do we let them do it? The Department of Education hasn’t yet responded to my request for their guidelines on commercial activity in schools.

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland told me it was up to teachers and schools to set their own guidelines on relationships with business and to ensure that “young people are not exploited for commercial advantage”.

They also say that secondary schools are seriously under-funded and that external relationships can broaden the education they provide. That’s all true. What’s also true is that one of the reasons our secondary schools have been under-funded in recent years is because the insane lending practices of our banks, including Bank of Ireland and AIB, dug a hole for this economy from which it is still struggling to emerge.

The €4.8bn we had to sink into Bank of Ireland has been repaid and it looks like even the €20.8bn we found for AIB may be repaid, too. But the shock to the system of this country still resonates with most people and some people will never get over it.

And what do we do? We open the doors of our schools and let them set up banks in our schools, staffed by school students, so they can learn how to manage their finances from the people who broke the country.

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