YouTube if you want to: How HMRC used video to teach young people about tax

Tax may not be high in the YouTube search history of your average teenager, but HMRC's "Tax Facts" campaign has been described as "cheerful and creative". Maureen Pamplin​, the tax authority's head of sustainability, shares her tips on how departments can engage the public – without dumbing down

By Maureen Pamplin

22 Oct 2015

Traditional academic subjects are rightly the cornerstone of the education system. But let’s face it – once they put down the textbooks and take their first steps in the world of work, young people are far more likely to engage with the tax system than they are to use a quadratic equation.

At HM Revenue and Customs we therefore think it’s vital to prepare teenagers for life beyond school by giving them a grounding in financial matters before they move into employment and adulthood. Recognising that need, and acknowledging the new requirement of the national curriculum in England to teach young people about how public money is raised and spent, we decided to design an introduction to the tax system aimed at 14-17 year olds studying subjects such as citizenship, business enterprise and personal finance.

Previously, we had a very outdated, interactive tax education product for teenagers called "Tax Matters". It was expensive to maintain and the basic graphics meant that it had lost its popularity in the classroom. Rather than try to overhaul that existing content, we opted to produce something brand new that would be much more in tune with the target audience and offer teachers more flexibility.

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What we came up with was "Tax Facts", a comprehensive learning resource that aims to give students a clear overview of the tax system, so they understand not only the factual elements such as who we are, how to contact us, and what to expect when they start earning, but also the importance of paying tax and the consequences for people who try to cheat the system. 

The centrepiece is four, short, light-hearted animations:  

 "About HMRC’ – a background to HMRC’s work and the basics of the tax system."

"Starting Your First Job" – what to expect when you enter the world of work, such as tax deductions and National Insurance contributions. 

"Working for Yourself" – what to do if you’re planning to become self-employed. 

"The Hidden Economy" – how people try to get out of paying their taxes and what HMRC is doing to tackle this. 

They are all easily accessible via HMRC’s YouTube channel and are available on DVD. To complement the short animations we also created a full teachers' pack and made it available on the Times Educational Supplement (TES) website. This includes lesson plans for each video, individual and group exercises, suggestions for discussion, a quiz and lots of supporting resources.

Given that the UK has separate education bodies for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, we wanted to post the "Tax Facts" materials on the "go to" portal for teachers across the UK. Education Scotland was helpful in confirming that its teachers used TES, so once we'd established that TES could host the materials, we let our IT experts liaise with TES experts in the Department for Education (DfE) to get them uploaded to the site. It was a very simple and quick process.

When formulating the campaign, the tone and style was one of our main considerations. It’s hard to imagine that tax matters are particularly high up in the YouTube search history of your average 14-17 year old and as teenagers are pretty savvy – not to mention a touch cynical – we were mindful of not "dumbing down" any of the content or worse, trying to guess what might be perceived as "cool" within that age group.  

We rigorously tested all the materials with young people, refining on the basis of feedback. Because of the way we made it age appropriate, those involved in the campaign’s launch described it as "helpful, colourful, fun, interesting, cheerful and creative" – high praise indeed! 

"Keep the script punchy"

That collaborative approach is definitely something we’d recommend to other departments with similar goals. Consult your audience about what works for them and involve them in the development process, especially the small details. Don’t assume you know what will work best for them. For example, we sounded out the students on everything from the music and narrative to the animated characters for our videos. 

In addition, be clear from the start about the purpose of your product, the messages you want it to convey and the formats you want to use. If you're producing a video, keep the script punchy – it shouldn't read like an internal briefing paper. 

If you want to include information in a video that could change at any time, then say what it’s about and show a link to the GOV.UK website for the numbers or policy line. This will avoid you having to update your video every time there’s a change.  

Finally, build in simple, clear evaluation. One of the ways we’ve been able to do that is via the interest the campaign has generated. Since launching, we've received requests from accountancy firms wanting to use the videos for clients starting their own businesses and from a range of charities and voluntary organisations focussed on helping people to enter the world of work, including The Prince's Trust, YMCA, Poppy Foundation and Citizens Advice. 

Because HMRC is unique in developing a tax education programme, designed specifically to foster early, positive engagement with future customers and to help young people to get their tax affairs right first time, we've had interest from as far afield as Russia and Armenia, who are keen to follow our lead by introducing animations with humour into tax education for their young people.  

Meanwhile, on the back of the success of "Tax Facts" we’ve been asked to extend the material to the new Core Maths programme, which provides practical maths skills for sixth form students aged 16+. And we’re going to develop a junior version of ‘Tax Facts’ aimed at primary school pupils.

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