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?