. . . and carting jam jars full of sweets into school, and boxes of laboriously-decorated fairy cakes?  Well, the school has a Pet Show, which means getting about 100 parents to spend great chunks of domestic time preparing stalls, games and tombolas in order to sell these things . . . to one another.

Eventually, after the bouncy castle man has been paid, the sweet wrappers cleared up and everyone has trooped home with everyone else’s cake, the Friends of Hogwarts might find themselves with a four-figure sum, which goes towards making the already excellent Hogwartian facilities even more firmly ensconced in the top decile.

And holding down a struggling miniature Schnauzer, I ask myself: why? Why are time-starved members of the middle class slaving away in the evenings for an effective wage of £5-10 per hour?*

It seems like a bizarre refutation of the principle of comparative advantage, rejecting Smithian gains. Trained lawyers, doctors and bankers, instead of doing what they do best at £100 per hour, are reverting to some kind of daft barter economy** in which everyone has to show themselves part of the self-sufficient commune for a while.

It would be easy to poke holes in the economic-madness of the affair, but people are always doing things that don’t ‘add up’ in that way.  But the wealthy classes standing by the tombola clearly possess lively awareness of the advantages of hiving off lower-value work on other people (i.e. the nanny).  In fact, they are probably having to pay the nanny more in order to have time to collect jam jars. And many of them moan about how they would rather send a cheque.

One mitigating factor is that the kids love the day out.  For them, the jam jars and assorted expensive puppies being graded is as much fun as Chessington (which costs much more).   However, this still doesn’t explain the deliberate terrible use of underpaid labour (i.e. hassled mums). Why not club together, donate £50 per family, and have a really professional show – and then some time to drink an evening glass of wine with your spouse without having to worry about the quality of the icing on your cake?  After all, we pay for others to do drycleaning . . .

I think it must be some sort of implicit entry-ticket to the school – the fees of which are not the highest.  Here some of the more experienced Marxist thinkers could help me out.  Poorer families, even if they could scrape £9k per year (and perhaps some in the 7-9th decile could), would really struggle to find the time to show willing at all these events.  It would start feeling really uncomfortable.  Sometimes, as I mentioned, you can only really do it because you can afford to pay someone nice from Eastern Europe to do other things for you.

But this feels malicious.  Why erect deliberate, perverse and frankly exhausting entry barriers around your school? Is it really so important to stop your kids mixing with poorer kids?

Simon Crompton in Prospect asks a similar question about the excessive levels of parental participation now demanded in primary schools:

My wife and I scrabble around painting cardboard and tying up sheets, sometimes even buying a costume that our nine-year-old won’t find embarrassing. It seems like harmless fun. But dressing-up days, extra homework, pressure on school attendance and the expectation that parents should do more to support their children’s education are taking a toll. You can chart the discontent on the Mumsnet website, where parents complain in their thousands

He goes on to quote one Kevin Rooney who says “A parent should parent, and a teacher should teach”.  And a trained circus act should be manning the hoop-toss.

I agree with Crompton and view with dismay Ed Balls’ introduction of more of this in parent-school agreements.  I don’t think parental engagement is a cause of extra achievement, but a sign of its underlying causes being present: wealthy, intelligent and committed parents can do it, and have bright, nice kids (see this figure from Mankiw). Balls is overloading schools with one freaure of the private sector that this particular hassled parent would not wish on anyone.

Then again, at least the dog won something:

petshow 09 004


*hourly calculations:  I expect about £5-8000 to be raised, 50 hardcore parents on the day and before spend at least 10 hours on it, and another 100 spend 5 hours.
** In fact, the method of making money is quite interesting: they sell a rapidly depreciating currency (the raffle-ticket token) for 25p each.  It’s a bit like the Brixton £ (see earlier post).  The unsuspecting parent, seeing a cornucopia of jamjars, ring-toss dart throwing duck hooking games and suchlike, buys too many of them.  The real stuff then gets bought up way too quickly, or if really valuable (a Starbucks or a burger) turns out only to be available for hard cash.  In the end you have 20 tokens left, and the choice either to bin them or hog the Guess the Sweets in the jar game, thereby looking a tad obsessive. Too much money, too few goods, no capital movement or convertibility = worthless paper currency and abuse from the authorities.


9 thoughts on “Why am I brushing the Schnauzer’s eyebrows…

  1. Ah, the classic New Labour Ed Balls fallacy: to attempt to level-up by forcing state schools to try and emulate the private sector.

    We all know this ain’t gonna work: it’s not just the lack of dosh, it’s the lack of parental (and teacher) time (and in many sad cases, inclination) too.

    Obviously the answer is to go the other way…take away your private option and force you (or possibly more accurately, your pushy co-parents who enjoy the pet show more than you do) to dediate these sorts of energies to the state sector, to the benefit of all those poor kids who would benefit concomitantly.


    Finland did it…

  2. Finland – 5m people, homogenous, relatively equal to begin with – but also a very very decentralised schooling system, no?

    Personally, I would see your solution as a bit of an invasion of liberty – ‘we want to use your kids to improve our education system’ – and liable to unintended consequences, partially based on pushparent slipperiness. Private home tuition, obstructing manouvres like the Pet Show, all would flourish. And, in educational terms, you would destroy what are generally regarded as the best schools in the world, an export industry to boot.

    I find it interesting that Labour ministers can never resist sending their kids to the best school they can – most people would, with their little darlings, and as a result legislating to stop this deep instinct’s current manifestation would have an enormous consequences.

    (personal interest to reveal: my dad, his dad, his dad’s dad, all public school heads. Accept I’m biased. I too can find public schoolboys obnoxious, but you’d destroy huge amounts of capital in trying to get to a difficult nirvanna). Personally, I like the Academies answer . . .

  3. Perhaps ’tis an invasion of liberty.

    But to not invade said liberty is a glaring afront to equality of opportunity (which everyone believes in these days, right?). After all, if the already wealthiest kids in turn go to the best schools….

    The whole debate is littered with landmines, of course. But that it may be an afront to personal liberty to ban private schools doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t do it: promoting equality of opportunity may be considerably more important a value.


    It may not be.

    But the “personal liberty” argument is no debate-ending trump card.

    As for your points about export value…I’m sure you, the economist, don’t need me, the philosopher, to point out that our economic success harldy rests upon chinese and american millionaires sending their brats to Eton. We could live without it – and indeed, if the overall effect was for the school standards to go up as a whole (as I believe would likely be the case), then the long-run economic benefits of a better-educated population as a whole would surely be far more considerable than the losses accruing from foreign brats not coming here anymore. Not least, given that independent schools are charities and therefore exempt from all sorts of tax (right?? I may be wrong on this), so presumably most of the economic benfits they bring will be indirect.

    As for home schooling. 1) Private tuition will doubtless continue – probably can’t stop that (and its effects on inequality of opportunity, etc). However, private tuition after school for well-to-do kids in the state sector is not the same as not having those kids in the state sector at all… 2) but that’s different from “home schooling”; not many people who currently go private will suddenly home-school their kids. Most couldn’t afford to and wouldn’t want to anyway. Home schooling is pretty extreme and usually weird.

  4. Paul

    I won’t pretend this is an easy one for me: having benefited hugely from opportunities of all sorts, I realise the ease with which I may fall into just justifying my position.

    1st, quite right: export value is not a reason in itself. It is more a sign of how good the schools are, than a justification for them. I am a governor of a prep school in Kent, and I am amazed at how brilliant and happy the kids from all backgrounds are. I sit there thinking: “privileged. I’m jealous. But what a huge gamble to take it to bits on the assumption that all the intangible values can be reconstructed elsewhere”.

    I don’t think homeschooling is a really large possibility. My point is that the Middle classes would stay ahead in other ways. If they found that they could not create their advantage by agglomerating themselves within similar schools, they might put less effort into the school side of things and more into other, more private and less-spillover areas. Again, I would not assume that their epic levels of energy and pressure would just move over to the state sector, like London Bridge heading to Texas. It might just get lost.

    Equality of opportunity. Societies resources should be shared – if I were somehow monopolising land in selfish, unproductive way that damaged society, I could see the advantage of undermining that power through tax. Hence ALTER.

    But my energy, ability to see beyond the need for a beer in the afternoon and instead sit down with my kids, eagerness to interact with teachers, all those things – are they part of society’s resources? I personally think I’m a good Dad – is my “good dad-ishness” some sort of resource that I should be sharing more equally? I have helped through energy and patience make my little monsters slightly less monstrous and unpleasant than they could be. Should that be commanded to be shared out so that other schools are slightly less unfriendly places, even if it meant my daughters were more unhappy and worse educated?

    At some point, an attempt to socialise schooling would come up against such instincts . . .

  5. Here’s another way of thinking about it:

    Rather than a terrifying picture of your “good dad-ishness” being a resource retrospectively appropriated by the interventionist state for egalitarian redistribution, how about we think of the state restructuring our public institutions so that it just happens that your “good dad-ishness” results in benefits not just for your kids, but simultaneously for others too?

    That is, because you are a good dad, you will do good-dad things. If the institutions were such that this rubbed-off on the poorer and more disadvantaged kids who attended school alongside your kids – simply by virtue of you being a good dad, as you are now – then surely we can avoid this terrifying talk of you being a “resource” to be “redistributed” (or words to that effect)?

    (And yes, re Homeschooling, you are right that the middle classes would find ways to stay ahead. But that doesn’t translate into a reason for not doing things that would even the playing field more. The knowledge that middle class kids would still do better if things were made more equal is not an argument for saying “Oh well, in that case let’s tolerate things exactly as they are now and make no attempt to change, because if we attempted change them some aspects of the status quo would remain”)

  6. A much milder way of putting it, I agree. But I think the devil lies in the detail of “if institutions were such that . . .”.

    My colleague has his kids in a difficult school. There are parental committees to help raise and spend money, that sort of thing – a bit like the Pet show. Now, 10% of the school is in the white middle class educated bracket. The rest are in various ethnic minorities, poor, uneducated, combinations of this. 100% of the parent committees are white, middle class, educated.

    I will ask him whether this then works – do their good works rub off? I never got to the punchline – I will research more. But he when he told me this, he was expressing some sort of scepticism – the WMC people crowding out the others, rather than leading them somewhere.

    I think, to be honest, I have to insert some selfish motives in there too. Why would I be nervous about the kids going to a rougher school? Because I would be nervous of them being bullied, taught foul language, ignored in class, taught badly. It is a big risk – you have only one chance at bringing up your kids – so selfish is a bit strong. I know from personal experience that people willingly take big risks to avoid screwing this decision up.

  7. Giles,

    I don’t think “selfish” is the right word to use (as you yourself point out). It’s a much more complicated issue than mere self-interest. It’s about your kids and their future, after all.

    Though, having said that, one quick remark: that you personally, acting as an individual, clearly don’t want to dice with your kids’ futures is completely laudable and understandable. It’s another question entirely whether the State should exercise the power to re-arrange institutions such that you are not put in the dilemma of “good private/bad state” school, because the only option is “state” (though which I contend would, with time, be a better system all round…but that is and empirical claim I can’t substantiate).

    Of course, I have hard-line egalitarian thoughts on this kind of question that I think you will baulk at: I actually think there are good things to be said for levelling *down*: that in some important ways (though they may not be the decisive considerations) it is better to prevent the wealthiest, most-advantaged kids getting the extra boosts that the private system affords them, even if the state school kids experience no corresponding improvement. Because I genuinely believe it is intollerably unfair for the children of the wealthy to get even more advantages (in the form of private education) than they already have vis-a-vis the children of the poor. So I would be happy to level down (though I do speculate that in the real world, a levelling-up would actually occur – it’s just, even if it didn’t, i’m not sure that would change my mind).

    Thing is, it’s easy for me to say that, right? I don’t have kids.

    I will probably do a blog post on this, drawing on our discussion here, trying to map the debate in a sort of “let’s take very seriously some intelligent pro-private school arguments, and see how good they are”, as oppose to “I’m going to stay in my comfort zone and rant”. But I may not. I’m tired, just got injured boxing, and am feeling apathetic as fuck about blogging this week….

  8. Boxing? Remind me to be even more polite and considered in my replies . .. pre kids my sport was Fencing but it definitely comes second.

    I know the feeling about blog apathy (it’s 6:40am and the baby needs feeding .. .

    I think we have to agree to disagree about levelling down. There are great externalities to some kids doing really well (their future taxes for starters). And I believe that approach would end up sending the message that if you are wealthy, it’s ok to spend the money on a big car or expensive holiday but no, don’t spend it on your kids’ education, that drives inequality. Not a message I’d like – seeing some parents driving sh1t cars into good schools regularly

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