$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.)

36 thoughts on “$100000 of coerced child labour

  1. Many Auckland schools run Quiz nights, with real auctions and silent auctions, many raise 20K on the night and its a good social thing, no real child involvement. Its fun.

    It annoys me that big corporates don’t pay tax here so we have to do this, don’t even get me started on why starship has to raise money when big pharma pays bugger all….

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  2. It bothers me greatly. Embarrassing for NZ that education is part funded like this – these are desperate measures, but then desperate measures are likely needed given the public funding shortfall is so great and voluntary efforts and contributions are declining in many areas, This type of non-voluntary child labour fundraising exercise during school hours is likely undertaken more widely than you think.

    I was thinking of this from a public policy framework: whether public education is moving towards being treated as a Club good (non-rivalrous but excludable) in that at a low cost we can prevent those (the students) who have not paid for the good from consuming it by way of coercing their free labour during school hours.

    You are right – it should not be allowed by the Ministry – but I suspect they are turning a blind eye.

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  3. My last experience with a school fair involved running a spray on tattoo booth. I spent between $40-60 dollars on ink and stencils and I raised somewhere over $500 (they took my float away as they wanted to close up). There hasn’t been another fair. I heard anecdotally that I was the only one who generated a profit.

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  4. Sounds like Mr Reddell and his partner needs to do a basic parenting skills course to learn the value of socialisation, community cohesion and real world experiences for the growing child. Heaven help us when parents think they can just make good by writing cheques.
    Trina Dobson

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    • That would be “wife”.

      I take the same approach to school as to the doctor or supermarket – I “write a cheque” to purchase a service. But, as it happens, in the post I note that I would favour full state funding of schools. Socialisation is one thing; coerced labour to fund raise for the school is quite another.

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  5. Market day. Sheesh. Whatever happened to the old PTA wine and cheese nights, when you could win a frozen chicken, 60 bucks on the pokies and come home as pissed as a fart? Happy days the 70s.

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    • Thanks for the link. To be clear, it is an estimated $100000 of lost school time, not the $10000 the article repeats (from my original typo).

      I’m in a sense pleased to hear that the event raises nowhere near $20000 – I deliberately erred on the very generous side in my initial post, so as not to unfairly skew comparisons against the school. If it only raised $5k to $10K, the economics of this forced labour look even worse.

      Contrary to the Principal’s claim that she has dealt with me on a fairly regular basis, I’ve never met her, and I think we might have exchanged two emails this year. When I raised some concern about the forced labou in an email earlier this week, I did not got any response from her.

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  6. I looked on SWIS website and cannot tell if “market day” is a fundraising exercise or an attempt for the children to learn about business (albeit North Korean business practice as you mention). If the later then maybe the school would appreciate some advise on how to better teach business skills etc. However, if the “market day” is culturally engrained in the school’s psyche, good luck 😀.
    On another note, as much as I find school galas etc a chore in my busy life and certainly agree that they are a very inefficient mode of fundraising, I must admit that in my community they seem to be a key part in maintaining and building social capital…something which I suspect is rapidly eroding in NZ society.

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    • I’m pretty sure it has always been marketed as the sole/main fundraising event of the year.

      It is interesting how in some communities school fairs do have that sort of effect you speak of. I’m not sure why – we don’t fund supermarkets or hospitals that way – and presumably it wasn’t so 40 years ago when school fairs and fundraising activities for schools were largely unknown.

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      • “maintaining and building social capital” seems an ok reason. Supermarkets don’t need to run them because they have customers everyday, and people meet, chat, build social capital etc. It would also be very obvious that the owner was to benefit if they ran some sort of fund raising scheme. But parents have a form of ownership with schools, and want it to do well for their kids. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be fund raising for a library, town hall, sports facility, community group, where the locals (think they) have “ownership”.

        At the same time, I suspect the schools run these events with the purpose of fund raising, not to build social capital.

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      • Schools have customers every day too!

        It is interesting to think about which analogy is better and why. One could think of things where there is a genuine (chosen) community of interest – eg members of a tennis club, a bowls club, a church or whatever. But even there fundraising tends to be for specific projects (whether new facilities or whatever), where the members are much more directly owners too. I don’t feel any ownership interest in the local schools, except perhaps as a taxpayer, any more than I do in the local library, the town hall, the hospital, or the doctor’s surgery. All of them are – to a greater or lesser extent – important, as the supermarket is, but I’d never think of fundraising for any of them.

        Would schools be better if the relationships between parents and the school were more transactional? I suspect so in many cases, but I guess there is a range of different ways of looking at that.

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      • Do schools have customers every day? Who decides whether they will consume the service provided by a school. I would argue it is the parent more than the child.

        My comments about ownership were meant very loosely. A bit like the ABs. I think many would claim a bit of “ownership” there, but obviously own nothing in reality.

        PS. Congrats on running an “acerbic blog”, as per Stuff.

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      • Oh, I agree about parents – each day I send my child to school, expecting the delivery of a service from a service provider. Schools hate that conception, but it is why I think things would be clearer, and better, if schooling were purchased on-market by parents (even if indirectly state-funded via vouchers). I presume the conception of the relationship must be a bit different at a private school – or perhaps even an integrated one – given the size of the cheques parents have to write.

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  7. I grew up when the “tomorrow’s schools” reforms came in and assumed schools have always had galas etc. Maybe galas have been around for longer but the emphasis was not so much on fundraising but community relations. I guess when schools were given the opportunity to increase their funding by other means, they did so, and saw galas etc as a way to do so. Most secondary schools supplement their funding by gaining extra income from international students.

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    • I’d like to know a bit more about the history, but as I noted in the post in my 12 years of schooling there was only one school fair, and that to raise funds for an external good cause. My wife, who didn’t leave school until 1989, confirms the same memory. Now I do recall fundraising (at a school in the heart of Remuera) for a school trip to the Bay of Islands – which I have no problem with – and presumably some sports team raised funds for tournament travel or whatever, but nothing for general school functioning (and, of course, “fees” (donations) were also materially lower in those days. State funding of state schools just isn’t what it was – at least relative to the level of what schools now provide. Perhaps if they spent less on IT and has slightly larger class sizes it would be enough, but there would probably be a backlash (including from govt) if schools tried to operate like that.

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      • Galas and market days are not new. Every school (primary and secondary) that I know of in rural Taranaki held an annual gala during my childhood (1960s and 70s) so they are certainly not a new thing,at least in rural areas. This would often be combined with the “calf day”. We would spend quite a bit of time building up to the day organising our class stall and running it during the day.
        The days were always big social occasions with a good balance of input from the pupils, teachers, parents and wider community.

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  8. You can enrol in a catch up course at universities which cover the whole algebra course taught at secondary. It takes less than 8 weeks. To learn all that stuff at school takes several years. Based on that you could probably intensively learn 5 NCA subjects to the highest levels in 10 months.
    Which begs the question how efficient are schools at teaching and should we push these educated children out like a sausage factory?

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  9. My primary school has been having an annual gala since about 1975 that I know of. But we’re talking cake stall, pony rides, jumble sale, fudge, tombola and chook raffles, and I remember being massively excited about going to the Saturday gala (pony rides!!!!!!!) but minimal involvement for the kids in schooltime.

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  10. I’m not an economist but I recall from Economics 101 something about sunk costs and it seems to me that the “cost” of the children’s input would qualify as such. If that is true then what is its relevance to the discussion about the value of the market day? And, if that is the case, then the argument falls back, as it should, to one about the educational benefits of the activity vs the benefits of a more conventional day (or week) in the classroom. Surely it is up to the teachers and school management as the educational professionals to make this call. Often there are stories in the media lauding the success of programmes such as “Young Enterprise” and calling for our youth to be given more opportunities to experience the “real world” and build their financial literacy. Does not working as part of a group to form their own business, even if it just trades for a couple of hours, give these children valuable experience in this area?

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  11. I was on the board of trustees for a decile 3 school, they had been fundraising for a school hall for many years getting nowhere as the community had no money. We switched to applying for grants from the ASB trust and similar places and had a hall within a couple of years. I worked with an accountant who sent his children to a decile 9 or 10 school, they ran many fundraising events and had no trouble raising money, probably 100 times more effective. The headmaster of your daughter’s school is using very ineffective means to teach the lessons she lists and is being very inefficient in raising funds for the school.

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  12. I’m not sure how “sunk costs” enter this discussion. That time could readily have been spent on other stuff – not, to be sure, by yesterday, but a month or so ago the school could easily have decided to use the time elsewhere (eg on some more, and more demanding, maths and science.

    I’m not averse to Young Enterprise etc schemes but (a) they are typically voluntary, (b) I wasn’t aware the proceeds, if any, went to keep the school going, and (c) they involve the voluntary mobilization of resources (labour, capital etc) in a way rather more similar to real businesses.

    But I guess I am skeptical of the call to experience the real world. Kids (a) have lives outside school, in the real world, and (b) have the rest of their lives (70 years and adult) to do so. They have a strictly limited amount of time learning the foundational core knowledge – a concept frowned on by so many of today’s teachers – and critical analysis skills etc.

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  13. I’m interested, did you end up going to the day? What did your daughter think of the whole event?

    Also I find it quite incredible that you’ve got this much to say about the school but have never been in to see the principal. And if you see schooling like a doctor or supermarket, why don’t you just send your daughter to a different school? Surely you wouldn’t keep going to a doctor or supermarket if you’re unhappy? You must have options.

    And lastly, why don’t you stand for the BoT if you have this much to say?

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    • I didn’t go (mostly because of not being well) altho went to last year’s. My daughter’s views are her affair.

      I’m not sure other state schools – of which there is only one on this side of Wgtn – are much different in approach. ERO reports suggest they are as middling as each other.

      And actually I did stand for the BOT – not expecting to get elected, but as the opportunity to air some concerns about the school, its governance, and its political biases.

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      • Just did a search and it seems there are a number of schools that go to year 8 in reasonably close proximity to SWIS. I assume that some of the full primary are zoned but Evans Bay Int don’t seem to be.

        If in fact those schools don’t have much different approach to each other, and assuming you managed to air your concerns about the school when running for the Board yet didn’t get elected, have you considered that your views might not actually be very good? I find it incredible that an economist feels like they know more about how to run a school than trained professionals. Do you have any experience in teaching panther running of a school? Would you be so quick to give advice to doctors or lawyers?

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      • The issue isn’t, and never has been, the specific school. My point in both posts has been about the inefficiency of fundraising methods and – as subtext – the systematic underfunding of state schools. Schools are often much of a muchness and with intermediate schools in particular – only two years – there is always the issue of “how much damage can it do anyway”, especially for fairly bright self-motivated students. The loss to my household from this “market day” is roughly $400 (a week’s lost teaching) – shifting to a different school, even if one were better in some respects – would be hugely more expensive than that.

        As for the possibility of being wrong, yes of course. I’m not sure if you are a regular reader, but one of the themes of this blog is how little we (and especially governments) actually know, and the importance of building institutions that are resilient to the limitations of knowledge. But holding a minority view has never given me reason for particular unease – if that were how life operated, no doubt all fringe political parties, lobby groups etc would just wind up and go away. Society advances by the contest of ideas, free speech etc, including (perhaps especially when the ideas are unpopular).

        On this particular issue, recall that the issue is about how to fund schools, and the economic efficiency of funding techniques. They seem perfectly natural points for economists to think about and comment on, especially in a forum – this blog – mostly aimed at people who appreciate an economic perspective (even if they disagree with me on specifics). As it happens, I do have views on funding legal aid, or funding health care – but not on how best a lawyer might represent a litigant or a doctor treat cancer.

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  14. Just wanted to say I enjoy reading your posts and I agree our schools are inadequately funded but don’t necessarily agree with your preferred model 🙂
    But your post raises another question. If fairs and galas weren’t fundraising activities, just activities, they would still result in the same economic costs you mention and be a woeful waste of students, parents, and teachers time and resources. However, the benefits that are generated from social interaction, creating a community around a school, encouraging kids to interact with peers, parents, and the wider community have benefits and consequences across that child’s, school’s and the wider community’s lifetime that aren’t easily quantifiable in economic or financial terms (but the potential social costs of poor social interaction based on a transactional relationship in later months or years could be quantifiable e.g. costs for removal of graffiti or per person per week of being in prison as an extreme example).
    Your post focuses on the immediate costs and benefits perhaps because they are identifiable and quantifiable, but it is an unbalanced view. I would be interested in whether you are able to somehow quantify the less immediate and less tangible costs and benefits. I’m not sure it is even possible (perhaps the Dunedin Longitudinal Study could assist in identifying some of these), but think you of all economists you might be able to begin to rebalance the equation, which is so important to robust and effective decision-making that affects all of our lives.

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    • Interesting comments thanks. Personally, I’m a little skeptical that a school is a natural focus for such social-capital building efforts, especially in cities. I can see why it might be in a small rural community – a school and a pub might be the only establishments for some distance around. But in towns and cities there are sports clubs, churches, service clubs (Lions, Rotary), drama groups, choirs etc. I’m also uneasy about “forced socialization” – after all, we know there is a wide spectrum of personality types, from those who revel in such community jollity and those who find it distinctly unpleasant/uncomfortable. Humans have grouped together for protection and for other reasons, and I’m not one to object (at all) to community events, especially ones that rise organically (rather than funded by “someone else’s money” – be it rates, taxes, or even grants), but am not convinced about the role of schools in that (since schools are both more or less compulsory, and have often these days become an instrument in the advancing of particular contested ideologies and views of the world. If an institution is compulsory, it seems to me there is an implicit obligation to bear lightly on the beliefs/practices of attendees and their families.

      Sorry that in many ways this doesn’t answer your question. Will think some more about it.

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  15. Michael I can’t speak for the Market day that is the focus of your post and I do accept your concerns on compulsory jollity but I am not sure how much organisations organically rise any more.

    To do so involves discretionary time for a family which has in the past meant only one parent – pretty much always the woman – not in paid employment.

    Now the less well off need at least two fulltime minimum wage employment to survive. Even our class the expectation is that educated women have careers as well as families. Add in housing costs and the ( excessive in my view ) drive for increased female labour participation and discretionary time goes.

    Therefore – as a tone deaf non sporty non Christian – I do see the school as an extemely important builder of social capital. More important that the other organisations you mention – particualry in areas where every one goes to the local school.

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  16. Thanks for those perspectives Andrea. On further reflection, in some ways schools (and associated fundraising events) still seem an odd locus for building “social capital”. After all, many people never have kids, and even those who do – often later in life than in say the 60s or 70s – kids spend only 12 years or so in the school system, often split over three different schools. Even with three kids, we’ll have had 11 years association with the local primary by the time the third child finishes next year, but once she leaves I don’t envisage ever having anything more to do with it.

    By contrast, weakening as they are, things like sport clubs, service clubs, churches typically involve rather longer-term allegiances/identification. Yes, these groups are typically less strong than they were, but the voluntariness of them seems to leave them more enduringly important (at least as regards parents) as schools.

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