Jacek Brant found that taxation was an unattractive subject for pupils. Here he describes the findings of his team’s research and a practical resource that was developed in response to it

In this article I report on a research project that I directed on behalf of the Inland Revenue, HM Treasury and HM Customs and Excise with business studies and citizenship teachers and educational intermediaries in 2002. I point readers to a free resource, The Red Box, which will be of value to teachers of citizenship and PSHE in the teaching of taxation. The Red Box was first produced in 2002; it has been updated in 2005 and all statistics are accurate for 2006-07.

Research has shown that the level of financial literacy amongst school children in the UK is not impressive (Davies et al, 2002). With regards to understanding of taxation, the research reported that of 1,000 14-18 year olds surveyed, 74% believed everyone should pay less tax; 51% disagreed with the statement that high earners should pay more tax than low earners; only 19% agreed that high earners should pay more tax than they currently pay. This shows a widespread lack of knowledge about the progressive nature of taxation. In fact, 72% thought they themselves paid no tax at all thus showing an ignorance of VAT and other indirect taxes.

Research on a ‘tax pack’ for schools

The research was carried out in early 2002 by a team of Institute of Education, University of London researchers in partnership with the British Market Research Bureau, a social research company. The ultimate aim of the research was to contribute to the wider efforts to increase financial literacy among schoolchildren.

Broadly, the research aimed to define the scope of existing curriculum arrangements in relation to the teaching of taxation; to identify the information and resource needs of teachers; to identify the levels of awareness of teachers and intermediaries about tax matters; to understand the role of intermediaries in the selection of appropriate teaching resources; and to identify the most efficient way of communicating the availability of a new set of teaching resources.

The research findings came from four different strands, a quantitative survey of 200 teachers conducted by telephone, seven regional focus groups (including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), a telephone survey of teachers using the existing Inland Revenue Tax Pack and a telephone survey of significant intermediaries. The latter took in people who were developing the citizenship course in England and people with key roles in the development of financial literacy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The findings were based on the full range of research outcomes from the project.  Indeed, all four phases of the project generated consistent conclusions.

Rationale for the Tax Pack project

  • there was a window of opportunity in England for teaching taxation within citizenship and PSHE courses
  • the teaching of taxation was taking place on a low level with limited coverage
  • the overcrowded curriculum would continue to militate against teaching taxation in greater depth
  • resources needed to be highly accessible and lively if they were to have a significant impact
  • a carefully thought-out package of resources would have the potential to enhance the teaching of taxation to a great degree
  • a single pack could meet wide ranging needs
  • the resources produced for England could also be of considerable value in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where citizenship education was developing more slowly.

There was a widespread view among teachers that taxation is an unattractive subject for pupils, which challenged teachers’ ability to produce motivating and interesting lessons. Teachers reported that pupils found taxation ‘dry’ and so there was a reluctance to engage in the teaching of this topic.

 The root of this ‘boredom’ appeared to be the belief amongst pupils that taxation topics were not relevant to them and teachers felt that this barrier was more likely to be apparent at Key Stage 3 rather than Key Stage 4. Some teachers felt that the topic was inherently difficult and that many less-able pupils would find the subject matter beyond their understanding.

However, some teachers appreciated the opportunity to address matters of public interest alongside essential aspects of adult life to which pupils should be introduced.

In the context of citizenship and PSHE, there were considerable opportunities to develop new and interesting approaches.  It was thought that this could be done by creating innovative resources, which commended themselves to teachers by their user-friendliness and their potential to motivate pupils.

Taxation topics were covered to varying degrees in other subjects such as business studies, economics, history, mathematics and ICT. However, coverage tended to be on a relatively low level.

Taxation topics, it was felt, could legitimately be taught in greater depth and (if resources were well produced, easy to use, accessible and lively), were likely to make an impact on the amount of time teachers would spend teaching about taxation issues.

Although this research indicated that many teachers felt reasonably confident about their knowledge of basic features of the tax system, this was not assumed.

Furthermore, all teachers needed up-to-date information and so resources on taxation had to embody all of the information required by pupils to complete the tasks that were set for them.

Since time is a perennial problem in the overcrowded curriculum it was decided that resources should be ‘punchy’ if they were to ‘grab’ pupils’ attention in the short time available. The demands of the citizenship curriculum are particularly heavy in terms of content and it was felt that teachers would be looking for quick ways to address them.

All of the teachers consulted in the survey were unanimous in emphasising the importance of accessibility in the resources they would use. They also asked that language requirements were low; that sentences were easy to read and that  the use of technical terms and challenging phraseology was kept to a minimum.

The ultimate product of the research of teachers’ needs, conducted on behalf of the Inland Revenue, HM Treasury and HM Customs & Excise, was The Red Box, an education resource that would assist in the teaching of taxation in citizenship and PSHE lessons to 11-16 year olds. I stress, however, that the Institute team of researchers had no input in the production or development of this teaching resource pack.

The Red Box resources are:

  • up to date
  • pupil-centred, with excellent opportunities for active learning
  • relevant to pupils’ own lives
  • practical in a situation where pupils are taught in mixed-ability groupings
  • constructed by teachers or authors with relevant teaching experience
  • free from political or commercial bias
  • relevant to a wide range of cultures
  • attractively and colourfully designed.

The Red Box is a cardboard replica of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s famous briefcase. It contains a 48-page printed booklet, a 21-minute video and two posters for classroom display. The resources are also supported by a website , www.redbox.gov.uk, with interactive games and useful links.

The booklet includes photocopiable black-and-white worksheets and accompanying teacher’s notes (with answers!), which are grouped according to age (for use at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4). These cover four topic areas: public spending, taxation methods, taxation and spending and the shadow economy.

 The teacher’s resources and background information incorporate straightforward definitions of terminology such as P60, PAYE, NICs and an elucidation of tax codes. There is also a useful glossary at the end of the booklet, which explains concepts such as interest rate, inflation, and direct and indirect taxation in accessible, straightforward language.

The depth of coverage offered by The Red Box is pretty basic and is clearly not challenging enough for use with a business studies or economics class.

Taxation and citizenship in the National Curriculum

 Each one of the four themes identified in the teacher’s booklet (public spending, taxation methods, taxation and spending and the shadow economy) offers opportunities for teachers and pupils to engage directly with the National Curriculum programme of study requirements in citizenship. The Red Box can be used to facilitate knowledge, skills and understanding about legal and human rights and responsibilities; democratic processes; how the economy functions; bringing about social change; and the rights and responsibilities of consumers, employers and employees.

Opportunities to develop skills of enquiry and communication through debating are provided by an invitation to discuss the pros and cons of the National Minimum Wage. Topics such as environmental taxes and excise duties on fuel, alcohol and tobacco develop students’ skills of participation and responsible action, thereby prompting them to express and explain a range of views; enter into decision-making processes; and think about the process of participation.

Examples of exercises

The Red Box video tells the story of Jack, a typical 15-year-old lad, and is intended to arouse EastEnders-like empathy among its viewers. The video is in four parts, which correspond to the worksheets in the booklet.

 The website invites the visitor to take on management of ‘the Square’. By answering questions correctly, the players gain money to maintain and develop public services.

 A number of difficult decisions arise, which prompt careful thinking about how public money should be allocated and spent. This game might especially appealling to the younger age-range of intended users.

Activity sheet 14 is entitled ‘The cost of fixing a roof’. We are given a scenario of a lady, Mrs Kingston, who has a leaking roof. Her friend recommends a builder who works ‘cash in hand’. By paying in this manner, Mrs Kingston ‘saves’ £87.50 on her bill by avoiding VAT.

A number of pertinent questions are then asked. Was the builder breaking the law? What taxes was he failing to pay? Was Mrs Kingston depriving other people in any way? Does the amount of money involved make a difference to the rights and wrongs of the situation?

A groupwork activity is then suggested. The scenario is a courtroom scene where Mrs Kingston’s builder is on trial for tax evasion and fraud. Pupils are asked to write notes in the builder’s defence as if they are his lawyer; write notes as if from the lawyer prosecuting him; to think about what Mrs Kingston might say in the builder’s defence if she was called as a witness and finally to decide if the builder is guilty and, if so, how he is to be punished.

One can see that Activity sheet 14 could be used as a simple worksheet and followed verbatim by the busy teacher as all is there for an interesting lesson.

However, the creative teacher could use the scenario as an inspiration for a truly interactive lesson. Briefing sheets could be devised for pupils and the lesson could take the form of a Crown Court trial with a judge, prosecutor, defendants and witnesses. Pupils not directly involved could play the role of the jury. The debrief that follows the court case could then be used by the teacher to unpick the moral and ethical issues that unfolded in the trial.

I believe that such a lesson would make a valuable contribution to the following areas in the Key Stage 4 programme of study for citizenship: 1a, c, d, e, h; 2a, b, c; and 3a, b and c (www.nc.uk.net).

 You can get your free copy of The Red Box by visiting the website www.redbox.gov.uk and submitting the online proforma.  Alternatively, you can download the worksheets and teacher’s guidance.

  • Davies, P, Howie, H, Mangan, J and Telhaj, S (2002) ‘Economic aspects of Citizenship Education: An Investigation of Students’ Understanding.’ The Curriculum Journal, 13(2), 227-249.
  • Hayward, J (2002) Economic Citizenship. London: Institute of Citizenship. This resource is available to download at: www.citizen.org.uk
  • Davies, P and Brant, J (2006) ‘Teaching School Subjects 11-19: Business, Economics and Enterprise’, Chapter 2, in Developing Citizens, Consumers and Owners, London: Routledge.

Jacek Brant is lecturer of business and economics education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His research interests include the role of creativity and expert subject knowledge in effective teaching