Is It Time To Kick Dollarmites Out Of All Schools?

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If you grew up in Australia, there’s a good chance you’ll recognise these characters.

The Dollarmites aliens were the old mascots of Commonwealth Bank’s controversial school program.

The Victorian government recently announced that Dollarmites and any other programs run by banks will be kicked out of schools in the state from next year.

So, what’s changed now, and could this mean the beginning of the end for all corporate involvement in schools?

What Is Dollarmites?

Dollarmites is an iconic financial literacy program for primary school kids that’s been running in some form since 1931.

Heaps of Australians will remember it.

It reaches about half a million children every year and sets them up with a Commbank account after teaching them about things like savings habits.

Dollarmites is worth a lot of money to Commbank.

A study last year found that 46% of Australians opened their first account with Commbank.

Around 40% of people stick with the bank they first open with for life, and all of those primary school kids getting a Dollarmites account means that the program is worth about $10 billion dollars.

It’s one of the largest child-targeted marketing schemes in Australia.

It also became the centre of a massive scandal back in 2018 when a Fairfax investigation found that Commbank employees were setting up thousands of fraudulent children’s savings accounts so they could meet internal targets and earn bonuses.

That investigation has led to a massive ASIC review of banking programs in schools.

Teachers and the Australian Education Union have actually been rallying to kick banks out of schools for a few years now, so why is the Dollarmites program still around?

Why Does Dollarmites Still Exist?

Well, Commonwealth pays schools for taking part in it, and that money can be really valuable for schools that need those resources.

In 2017, Commbank paid out almost $400,000 to public schools just in Queensland to participate in the program.

But some of the criticism surrounding Dollarmites questions how effective it actually is.

Catherine Attard is a maths education expert and she told me that the program really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as a teaching program.

She said it’s pretty outdated and, considering how complex a lot of our financial decisions online are these days with things like subscriptions and contracts, they’re not teaching super useful skills.

Financial literacy is also already there in school curriculums. Victoria might just have to make that section of their education system that much more explicit to fill the gap once Dollarmites is out of the equation.

It’s worth mentioning that Commbank’s program isn’t the only corporate involvement in Australian schools.

Smaller banks and heaps of companies like McDonalds, Coles, Myer, IBM, Apple, Rio Tinto and Woolworths have at some point run programs or partnerships with schools.

That’s not to say that some of these couldn’t actually be charitable or well-intentioned, but they do go to show how our education system can be touched by corporate interests.

Catherine (that financial education expert) thinks it’s a bit of an unethical gap in education legislation that companies are allowed to have that presence in schools.

She told me she hopes that the Victorian Government’s decision represents a big change in attitude not only towards Dollarmites but towards any company that wants to step into the education system.

The Takeaway

Dollarmites is a hugely profitable and pretty unethical program that managed to lodge itself into traditions of Australian education for years.

Now that there seems to be a big shift against it, it’s probably also worth understanding that it’s not just Commbank in this space and states might start taking corporate involvement in schools more generally much more seriously.