School report: How to deliver a lesson in tax
Earlier this month, Helen Thornley went back to school for the first time in a very long time armed with Jaffa cakes, Tunnock’s Snowballs and HMRC’s Junior Tax Facts. Having lived to tell the tale, here is why you might want to do the same.
Designed for primary school children aged eight to 11, HMRC’s Junior Tax Facts is a support pack prepared by HMRC for teachers to use to introduce children to the subject of taxation, including who pays it and what the money is used for.
The pack of class exercises is available on the Times Educational Supplement website. You’ll need to create a free login to access it. Once logged on, you can also find further HMRC material designed for older children.
The pack includes a short video which is available on YouTube. The video is an excellent way to set the scene. It held the attention of a class of year six pupils for the duration while I recovered my thoughts after the initial introductions.
There is a range of exercises in the pack and we did the first two, looking at what taxes pay for and how to prioritise how taxes should be spent. For each exercise, the children went off into small teams to tackle the worksheets provided and then came back to discuss their answers as a class.
Both exercises took around 15 minutes each (as estimated in the pack) and went down well. The class found the exercise of ticking off what taxes pay for on a town plan (police, schools, hospitals etc) quite straightforward, and we had a good debate about how the money spent on these things should be prioritised.
The basic session is designed to take 45 minutes, but terrifyingly I’d been given an entire afternoon to fill.
While HMRC’s Tax Facts does come with a few extension exercises, they are mainly sensible things about numbers which didn’t really grab me.
Having been advised by Twitter followers who have done similar things that children in year six can cope with reasonably sophisticated arguments, I opted to recreate a hearing of my favourite VAT case: are Tunnock’s and Lee’s snowballs cakes or confections? Once I’d decided to look at VAT and food, it was then compulsory to bring in Jaffa Cakes.
Naturally, this part of the afternoon involved tasting the goods. While we ate, with the odd gentle prompt from me, we picked out all the key areas covered by the judge – from the packaging and look of the product, to the texture and how messy it was to eat.
Before revealing what the tribunals had actually decided we took a class vote. We agreed with the tribunal in both cases on a majority verdict.
If you are feeling advanced – since it’s a concept that even our politicians often fail to grasp – both cases are useful examples of how you can only tax what you can define.
Plenty of readers will have done similar exercises and I’d be happy to share the basic lesson plan I designed for this section and to receive suggestions for improvement. There are many ways this could be extended for older children too, from VAT on gingerbread men and specific flavours of Nesquik milkshake to the sugar levy.
Food in the classroom
Before bribing the class with sugary food, I did check what was permitted with the teacher given the potential for allergies and health conditions.
Once given the all-clear, I was asked to bring everything in with its original wrapping to make sure we had the ingredients list and nutritional data to hand.
For the snowballs, you will also need plates and napkins. In fact, the need for a plate was one of the reasons that the tribunal considered these to be cakes.
I also took the precaution of buying more Jaffa cakes than were reasonably required. Excess Jaffa cakes are a definite aid to recovery when combined with a cup of tea afterwards!
We concluded the afternoon with a Q&A session which covered practical queries, current affairs and my favourite question: ‘does the Queen pay tax?’ (Yes she does, voluntarily.)
Teacher support and DBS
The children themselves were lovely and enthusiastic, but the real key to enjoying the afternoon was being able to do a double act with the head teacher. In addition to ensuring that it didn’t occur to the class to be anything other than delightfully well behaved, her knowledge of the children helped me to pick out specific aspects that might be relevant to them. And her presence kept me calm in front of an audience in an unfamiliar age range.
Much to my relief, you can’t be left unsupervised with the children without a DBS check anyway as part of strict safeguarding policies. As a volunteer for a one-off event it wasn’t necessary to obtain a DBS check and I was accompanied throughout my time on the school premises.
The final grade
Grading your own work is probably not allowed, but I can report that I have been invited back next year, and that I’m looking forward to it.
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Helen Thornley has a focus on personal and capital taxes. Initially training as an accountant before moving to tax, she worked in practice until her appointment as a technical officer in 2017. She also has an interest in the history of tax.