. . . 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:
*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.