$100000 of coerced child labour

Late last year I ran a post on the shockingly bad economics of school fairs. At least in my observation of our local school, it would be more efficient all round for most people to simply write a cheque.  But at least school fairs are largely an optional involvement –  even if there is a bit of social pressure.  Parents can simply write a cheque instead, and children themselves don’t need to be involved much if at all.

My daughter’s intermediate school (as left-leaning as they come) practises a much more inherently exploitative and costly fund-raising model.  Fairs are mostly run by adults, happen at weekends, and are –  at bottom –  voluntary.  But at South Wellington Intermediate today is “market day”, the culmination of weeks of preparation in which for two hours this afternoon the kids will attempt to sell the fruit of their labours (typically food of various sorts) to parents, each other, and anyone else they can lure onto the grounds.

I’m not sure how much this exercise typically raises – I couldn’t find the relevant newsletter from last year –  but I’d be very surprised if they managed to raise as much as $20000 [UPDATE: The Principal has confirmed that it raises much less than that.]

But how is this money raised?

By the compulsory conscription of the children.  The kids have no choice about being involved: more-structured teaching is simply set aside to make space for all the time “market day” involves.  Kids are encouraged to beg for money (“seek sponsorship”) from local businesses.   Now some of the kids seem to quite enjoy what they are doing, but that isn’t really the point.  And outside North Korea, it isn’t how real businesses operate either.

Kids are sent to school to learn.  Despite what it often feels like to a child, the school years aren’t really that long –  perhaps 12 years of schooling, and 192 days of school per year.  Make allowances for teacher stop-work meetings –  why does the government as employer agree to these occurring during class-contact hours? – and the little that seems to get taught in the last day or two of each term, or the inevitable days when relieving teachers do little more than entertain kids, and the actual time available for teaching core content gets slimmed down quite quickly.

And then comes market day.  It is difficult to tell quite how much time this affair involves, but from listening to my kids’ accounts I’d be very surprised if it was much less than a week per child. Even tomorrow, when the school is closed in the morning for some reason, the message to my daughter was along the lines of “anyone coming to school tomorrow afternoon will just be tidying up after market day”.

Coerced child labour doesn’t have a direct price –  so probably the teachers and the Board think of it as free –  but it certainly has an opportunity cost.  One way of getting a fix on that is to look at how much parents pay for schooling in the private market.  There is a nearby private school, which some parents who are particularly frustrated by the inadequacies of the state intermediate do send their kids to.  It seems like a fair representation of a price of schooling.  From that school’s website, New Zealand residents pay around $16000 per annum at intermediate level, and international students (for whom there is no NZ taxpayer support) pay around $22000 per annum.    The private school probably has fancier facilities etc, so lets call the market price of a basic intermediate education $20000 per annum.

Since intermediate schools are only required to be open for 192 days a year, or just over 38 weeks, it seems reasonable to put shadow price on the education of around $500 per week per child.  So how much are the inputs to this fundraising exercise –  Market Day – actually costing?   Let’s assume that the kids don’t actually spend a full week on the thing –  or, alternatively, that there is some slight educational value in the thing –  but only four days each.  That would be $400 per child.  There are around 250 kids at the school, suggesting that $100000 of school time –  lost learning – is being taken to raise, at most, $20000.  And in addition to the $100000 of lost (well “stolen” would be more accurate) time there are all the donations of ingredients from parents –  again something over which we had little effective choice –  and the donations from local businesses.  It is just staggeringly uneconomic –  and has me looking less unfavourably on old-fashioned school fairs.

Is this any way to fund public services?   Perhaps the Air Force could plough up all that land at Ohakea and send their staff out to work each day growing turnips, grazing sheep or whatever to supplement their budget  (but at least staff are free to resign)?     Perhaps Treasury could run cake stalls on The Terrace each lunchtime to help cover their costs?  But even that would be less bad than compulsory stealing the scarce learning time of our children to, extremely inefficiently, raise funds to keep schools going.

My inclinations are to the right in matters of education. In my ideal world, schooling would be purchased on-market (as food is), with income support available for those society assesses to be in real need.  But that isn’t the model New Zealand has chosen.  I’m also not a parent with a taste for extravagant facilities: mostly I think schools spend too much on IT, and have smaller class sizes than they could sensibly (evidence-based) have.  So my practical preference would be for all state schools to be adequately funded from the centre, and for schools to be banned (statutorily prohibited) from using coerced child labour to fund raise.  If parents really really want something better for the kids in their school, parents can either write a cheque (compulsory but tightly capped fees) or do their own fundraising out of school time.

Sadly, this use of coerced child labour isn’t restricted to fundraising.  At my son’s otherwise rather good high school, a Year 9 boy is apparently rostered on each day to act as messenger boy for the office –  the child concerned spends no time in class, but just runs messages as required.  In this day of emails and cellphones it is a little hard to imagine quite how many physical messages need to be run.  But lets assume they still do need to be run.  The alternative approach would be to pay an adult the minimum wage to do the job.  Over a six hour school day that would be $91.50 a day.  And the value of schooling?  Well, remember those estimates I calculated from private school fees –  around $100 a day.  In other words, the school is simply cutting costs by coercing child labour.

Perhaps these issues don’t bother many people.  I think they should.  In the far-distant days of my youth, the only school fair (or equivalent) I recall in twelve years was one to raise funds for the 1974 Commonwealth Games.  I have no objection to voluntary activities to fundraise for worthy causes –  mufti days for charity etc –  but having schools force our kids to run cake stalls to keep their school going isn’t, to my mind, what an advanced country should look like. Apart from anything else, it is just so wildly –  almost unbelievably –  economically inefficient.

And I’m still not sure how the teachers (and Board) reconcile this coercion with their own left-wing approaches more generally.

UPDATE: Stuff covered this post here together with some responses from the intermediate school Principal.  To be clear, despite her comment that she deals with me fairly regularly, we’ve never actually met, and I think we might have exchanged two emails in the course of this year (I did raise some other concerns with her and the Board last year).  I mentioned my concerns about the forced labour behind the fundraising in an email to her earlier in the week, and had no response.

The fact remains that this is the prime fundraising exercise the school undertakes in the year, and it is all done on the basis of coerced child labour, including encouraging 11 or 12 year old children to “beg” to help fund the school.  State schools shouldn’t be run that way.  (And, as I say that, I have a modicum of sympathy with those running schools on current, generally inadequate, funding levels.  Such fundraising activities, let alone the use of coerced labour, didn’t happen 30 or 40 years ago.)