Tuesday, 14 October 2008

A chat over smoko: school camps and related matters

A couple of workmates and I - all three of us mums - were lamenting the cost of living at morning tea time. The issue of school camps came up. It's the best part of twenty years since I've been to one, and oh how the times have changed.

M's son has just turned 21, so it's three or four years since he went to camp. At his school, the kids were given options - depending on what activity they wanted to do, they were put into different groups and went to different locations. To M's relief, her son chose the 'cheap' option: a $500 fishing trip. The other options included a skiing holiday to Queenstown, priced in the thousands.

M's son had a waif-like friend from a poor family. M offered to give him a lift to the gathering point from which the kids set out on their fishing trip. All this kid's provisions fit into the supermarket bag he carried. Needless to say, he didn't have state of the art camping or fishing equipment. In fact, he didn't have a sleeping bag. A small quantity of clothing, a packet of biscuits and a thin duvet were all this kid's family could equip him with for his days away.

V's story wasn't much better. She's raising two girls alone. When the elder wanted to go to camp, V simply had to say no. To the huge disappointment of her daughter, an expensive camp wasn't a viable financial proposition for the family.

V does her best, paying her daughters' sundry fees for equipment and activities. What she can't manage is what her younger daughter's school calls a 'donation'. For those who haven't heard of school donations of this sort, there is nothing voluntary about them - they are invoiced to parents. V's younger daughter recently came home upset. She explained to her mother what the kids had been told: that the school's Board of Trustees had decided people who hadn't paid their 'donations' would be named and shamed, and debt collectors set on them. V hasn't yet queried this with the school (partly out of embarassment), but it doesn't matter anyhow - she simply can't afford to 'donate'.

Denying kids opportunities because of their parents' socioeconomic status is bad enough. What is surely worse is actively rubbing poor families' noses in it. School camps may have changed since I last went, but one thing hasn't: kids can be relentlessly cruel to one another. Kids who are seen by their peers as being poor feel self-conscious and may be picked on. The segregation of kids by what their parents can afford - the conspicuous dividing of kids between those who can afford a skiing holiday and those who don't have a sleeping bag - is a recipe for humilation. Why would a school actively facilitate this behaviour amongst kids?

I'm not sure what educational goals school camps are supposed to achieve, but I assume they're about the personal development that comes from taking on new challenges and building camaraderie. The ones I went to were kind of dreadful but kind of fun. We all got dumped in the bush together, and had to work out how to cooperate, live closely with diverse others we might not usually associate with, collaborate to learn new skills like river crossings and campfire cooking, and accept the interdependent nature of life. The good old days weren't perfect, of course - old-style camps would still have been prohibitively expensive for some. But what is a four figure ski trip with an elite group of wealthy kids supposed to teach? How to sneer at others from behind your Raybans?


Anonymous said...

The camp issue sounds AWFUL. Thankfully we haven't got to that yet. Our primary school makes it very clear that fees are a DONATION and no one will be penalised for not paying. That said its not that much and they offer all kinds of ways of paying it. Every time they ask for money for trips or anything they add a "we do not want to disadvantage children who can't afford it" caveat and I am guessing there is some cross-subsidising going on.

So far so good

Anna said...

At my daughter's first school (too soon to say what it's like at the present one), lots of families struggled with fees. But the school was really understanding - and what this meant was that any time volunteers were needed, there was heaps of goodwill. Everyone pitched in to make the school fair a huge success, which helped the school recoup the fees in another way.

The ex-expat said...

Schools can not legally charge fees nor use debt collectors to collect them for compulsory activites. If it is a 'voluntary' activity then things get grey.

I'm not sure about the 'name and shame' but given that they can't legally charge a fee, they shouldn't be shaming people for not paying something they shouldn't have to pay.

michael said...

Tell the donations school to fuck off* and call the MOE and the Privacy Commissioner. They aren't remotely allowed to do that and I'm sure they know it, but causing trouble from the top gets much better long-term results from schools in my experience - otherwise they'll just let you off and quietly keep putting the hard sell on everybody else.

The MOE does not take kindly to that sort of behaviour and makes that very clear when it's pointed out to them. They don't ever seem to look for it actively, which is unfortunate. Still very good about resolving it in the end though. And definitely don't make any concessions towards paying the shysters any money.

That all sounds a bit rough, but this is a personal bugbear of mine. They just aren't allowed to do that, but they persist.

* I recommend those exact words, since these people do not deserve politeness, but dress it up if necessary.

Azlemed said...

my daughters school offers an incentive system for paying the fees, you get all your school stationary and four activities free if you pay in the first term.

If you don't pay they just invoice you for the activities that you child does through the year, I am unsure what actions are taken though,

The voluntary fee for the year is $80, stationary is around $40 so by paying it actually halves the fee which is quite good.

our school also only runs camp every two years for year 5/6 so the cost is lower than having it yearly

Confusion said...

I think to go on camp you needed to have paid the voluntary fee, and being from the upper-middle I wasn't too aware of any of this. But I'm pretty sure my school arranged camps for later year students such that everyone could go for a camping trip for 60 or so.

But then, I'm pretty sure that Kaikoura is notoriously poor, so this should hardly be a surprise, also it was 6 years ago.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to apologise upfront for some forthcoming profanity.

Fuck those fucking fuckers with their own fucking invoices.

I've BEEN that damned upset kid going home because her teacher told her she hadn't paid her "fees". FEES. At a FUCKING STATE PRIMARY SCHOOL. Oh, a state primary school in Remuera, sure, so let's put on affectations to try to match up with the private schools on our doorstep, and in doing so tell children they'll be in trouble if their parents don't pay their FEES.

My mother explained to me, after I calmed down, that these were NOT fees and they were fucking voluntary and we were not fucking paying them, both on principle and because we were hardly rolling in disposable cash. And I felt so fucking betrayed by my teachers, who had lied to me and embarrassed me in class, and it fucks me off to this fucking day.