Today, millions of British school children start a new term. Which means that millions of British parents must be dreading what their offspring might bring home with them one evening – no, not a verruca, nor even a poor set of exam results. Rather, the piece of paper that parents really fear is a flyer for the latest school trip.
In my day, the annual class outing meant a coach up to London Zoo, with optional mooning of passing motorists from the backseat window. But according to Adittya Chakrabortty in the Guardian, the whole business has become a great deal more ambitious (the school trips, that is, not the mooning).
“In the front room of his house, Nigel is telling me how he fell victim to a parental ambush. Last autumn, his eldest son Robert came home from comprehensive school carrying a formulaic note about an outing. Only, this was no traipse around a museum or rain-sodden week up a mountain. To help with A-level economics, the school was organising a trip to New York, featuring a tour of Wall Street. With meals, subway fares and a bit of spending money, the 16-year-old’s economics lesson would cost over £1,200. All his parents had to do was sign a form.”
“I wish whoever wrote that letter had met Nigel and his wife first. I’ve known them for years: Cameron’s strivers avant la lettre, they’ve nevertheless been knocked about during the slump and are only now coming out of a financial rough patch… Forget exotic holidays; this is a family that watches what it spends at Asda.”
Apparently, this is no freak incident:
“In February, this paper commissioned a poll of 1,000 families that showed over one in five had been asked by their child’s school to pay for trips costing £1,000 or more. Although 70% thought the request unacceptable, 47% still paid up.”
How do these schools justify themselves? According to Mr Chakrabortty, the trips are sold as an “enriching experience.” And they may well be, but not for those who have to pay for them.
Then there’s the suggestion that such experiences can enhance a CV and give young people the edge in terms of competition for jobs and university places:
“Even if we ascribe nothing but the purest motives to the individual institutions that lay on such trips, collectively they are enrolling parents into yet another educational arms race for the sake of their children. The classic definition of an arms race, don’t forget, is one in which everyone spends, and frets, and watches the competition, but in the end hardly any players swap position. The money is essentially wasted, yet no parent can safely quit the arms race alone.”
Of course, there are many parents who can’t afford to join the arms race in the first place – thereby erecting an early barrier to social mobility for no particular good reason.
There are far too many of these hurdles going up. Another important example is the unpaid internship, that closes off opportunities to young people who just can’t afford to spend anymore time not earning money.
The highest of all the barriers, of course, is the spread of the graduate-only profession – as if every trade and vocation requires an academic or psuedo-academic degree, when on-the-job experience might be more profitable for all concerned.