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Ethical banking for students – and challenging the dominance of big banks

Aqeel Kapasi from Banking with Who? looks at how banks are dominating financial education in schools, and what we can do about it.

Black horses running on the beach. Bikes for hire in London. “We Are Not an Island” billboards.

The dominance of the big banks (in this case, Lloyds, Santander and HSBC) is widespread. Together with Barclays and NatWest, they make up the 'Big Five' banks in the UK.

From continued funding of everything from fossil fuels to the arms trade, big banks are exacerbating environmental and social injustices across the world.

Many big banks are also influencing financial education in schools. Between them they produce a wide variety of resources, from lesson plans to online games. 

Big banks dominate financial education

Santander’s initiative includes partnering with the football duo F2Freestylers to create a video called Numbers Game to ‘make maths fun again.’ NatWest’s MoneySense is a financial education programme for 5-18 year olds and adults. Lloyds and HSBC run similar programmes, and Barclays provides finance tips within its wider LifeSkills offering.

Many of the banks’ resources are engaging, and support young people (as well as parents and teachers) at critical junctures of their lives when it comes to dealing with money.

However, as institutions set up to primarily maximise profit, these banks’ initiatives are also likely to support them in developing name recognition and building a rapport with a whole generation of young people – or future customers.

What students are not likely to hear from these ‘educators’ is the latter’s role in climate breakdown and other social injustices. Banks’ funding of various industries is not only harming young people and their neighbourhoods today - particularly in the Global South - but also future generations. 

Money management advice is essential. However, we think it’s equally important that students are taught about sustainability as part of any financial education (and other subjects, too).

We know that transforming the financial system is crucial to building a more sustainable world, and too many big banks are still pumping money into the wrong places. If these facts are omitted from any relevant financial education programmes - especially when delivered by the same banks that are funding the injustices - students will not be getting the full picture and will thus be less equipped to call for the radical changes needed.

Person counting money on desk with notepad

Educating in ethical banking 

We at the student-led educational charity SOS-UK are currently running a campaign called Banking with Who? to raise awareness of the big banks’ destructive role, and to encourage young people to consider sustainability before opening their first bank account. 

Since the start of the year, we’ve been working with colleges and sixth-forms across the UK to pilot free ethical banking workshops for students.

As well as going through the dodgy industries big banks often fund, we explore better alternatives and practices that students (and wider society) can support, such as banks with genuinely ethical investment policies, building societies and credit unions.

We believe, though, it’s not about telling students who to bank with but about giving them the tools to critically think for themselves and present the reality in the face of many banks’ controversial PR campaigns and dubious commitments – as well as their financial education programmes.

Ultimately, money can have a positive impact when channelled into more sustainable areas instead. Whilst there are structural issues with the financial system that need to change too, thinking about who we bank with can still make a difference - and young people can play a big part.

What can you do?

  1. If you’re a college or sixth-form teacher (or know of one), consider supporting the Banking With Who? campaign and book a free workshop for your students.
  1. If you’re a student, consider becoming an ambassador for the campaign. This can involve, for example, helping deliver future workshops to your peers; lobbying for sustainability and finance to be taught more in the curriculum; or spreading the word online.
  1. If you’re on social media, use our social media pack to post in support of the campaign and its key messages. Social media is often a space dominated by commercial advertisers, including banks. We want to instead spread the message on ethical banking. We’ve made some example posts or you can create your own.
  1. For more information, check out our free resources and consider who you’re banking with. Whilst aimed at students, much of it is applicable to others too. In particular:
  • An animated, introductory 3 minute video to ethical banking, available on YouTube and not-for-profit PeerTube
  • Our simplified written guide (six pages)

Find out more from the Banking with Who? website.

You can also check out the Ethical Consumer's guides to ethical current accounts and savings accounts.