Tuesday, 13 March 2012


The Economics of education

A while ago, i wrote something about the primacy and normality of children learning outside school, which gave rise to a number of questions.  One which particularly sticks in my mind is the question of how parents are supposed to earn a living while caring for the children.  This is a good question and as it happens one i've spent a long time considering.  What it in fact implies is that the economic system as it stands is connected to the idea of universal schooling, and my answer is as follows.

First of all, plenty of worthwhile work is done without pay and plenty of useless work is paid.  Unpaid work includes parenting, housework and childcare.  Sometimes this work does get paid, for instance there are cleaners, cooks, therapists, childminders, teachers and paid foster parents.  It is also very often unpaid and the person doing it may feel it's a duty or a chore.  There are hidden monetary benefits to society when this work is done for free - the current crisis in the cost of childminding and nurseries for people on below average wages illustrates this clearly.  There is also plenty of useless work which does get paid, but this is not always a bad thing because it may be better to do useless work which isn't positively harmful or parasitic.  The value of that work is that it prevents people from doing something worse, and since it is paid it provides them with an income, which is a good thing.  However, useful work is clearly preferable if it's done well.

The model of paid work which seems to be emphasised in many people's minds is work which is done by adults, outside the home, in the absence of children for an employer with regular hours.  This kind of work is sometimes necessarily like this. For instance, it would be difficult and undesirable to have children with one all the time in an iron foundry, a coalmine or a sewer.  Of all these, work in sanitation has to be the most valuable and undoubtedly should be done by adults without young children around.  However, how much work is really like this?  How many jobs absolutely have to be done in specific workplaces from which one's children need to be excluded?  How many of us do this kind of work?

My model of work is as follows:
Like education, much work is best done outside a specific workplace.  When i undertake home visits, i minimise my overheads but it is somewhat inconvenient to my clients as they are unlikely to receive their remedies immediately, though sometimes necessary.  When i do science workshops, i prefer to do them outside the house, but of course they can be done in the home sometimes if the weather is unsuitable.  Not everyone can work like me, of course, and some people have to attend workplaces.  Such workplaces could be quite a bit more child-friendly than they are.  For example, my daughter has been with me when i've worked in a shop and it did not impede my work or her education.  The reason this doesn't happen is that people lack enough control over their own paid work.

So i would suggest the following:

Paid work should be carried out by the self-employed as much as possible.  This gives people more control over their workplaces and their time and prevents corruption of large organisations to some degree.

Work which must be done in workplaces should be child-friendly to the maximum degree.  This does not mean creches:  they are a last resort, like recycling as opposed to not using resources in the first place.  It means children alongside their parents at work.  There must also be flexible hours.

This is of course not always possible.  Where it isn't, children need to be cared for by family members, friends, neighbours and to a limited degree paid childminders.

This again is not always possible.  Where it isn't, it should be borne in mind that not everyone has children.  I'm not making a distinction between the gender of parents here, but there are people who do not want children, have been persuaded against their better judgement to have children, have simply assumed that children are the next stage in their lives, and there are adults who have not yet had children or whose children are now independent.  If a career break is universally understood to be inevitable if an adult has children, it would make the opportunities for women and men more equal.  No longer would it be the case that a woman is not promoted or employed as a result of being perceived to have potential childcare commitments which a man has not, because men and women in fact have equal responsibilities in this area.

So, take all of that away and the final resort still remains:  schools.  However, in such a world, how many children would there really be there?  These would be the children of parents both of whom were unable to take their children to work with them, who work in circumstances which mean they cannot work from home and who have no informal support network around them.  That would still exist, but how common would it be?

This sounds like utopia and seems unachievable.  This may very well be so.  If it is though, it strongly suggests that our society as it stands is doomed, unsustainable and serves nobody, and we need to ask ourselves why.  On the other hand, perhaps we are too attached to the long-term survival of the species.