TO this day, I still recall the moment of realisation. Watching our twins excitedly trying on their first pair of shoes, I turned to the shop assistant and asked how long they would last before they outgrew them.
“Probably five or so,” he said. “Six at a push.”
“Months?” I said hopefully.
“Weeks,” he replied.
At that point I turned a whiter shade of pale and decided I either needed to ask for a raise or, more realistically, double check my overdraft limit.
The point is that bringing up children is an expensive old business. You can do all the calculations you like (and believe me, we did) but it still can’t quite prepare you for the sums involved – even for basics like what they stamp the floor with in the middle of yet another tantrum.
Personally I agree with the thinking that if you can’t afford children, you shouldn’t have them. But it doesn’t help when considerable costs crop up in the most unlikely of places.
The other day, pupils at Horsforth School in Leeds arrived home with a letter for their parents. It detailed an upcoming school trip – to the sun-kissed Caribbean. The cost? An eye-popping £1,650 per child.
The school defended its decision to offer the trip by saying it was triggered by student demand for an alternative in the wake of previous visits to Spain and Italy (supposedly boring old Europe didn’t pass muster). But this doesn’t alter the fact that for most people a week in the West Indies is more in keeping with a luxury honeymoon than a school trip. And yet this break is being aimed at children as young as 12.
At that age I was climbing hills in Snowdonia and learning to cook for myself on a Scout camp in exotic Leicestershire. I did go on a French exchange, and considered myself extremely fortunate that my parents could afford it, but it wasn’t a particularly glamorous affair.
A friend of mine told me that his mother had been furious because he came back with oil on his pyjamas. He explained, perfectly reasonably, that he’d had to climb over his host family’s bikes in order to get into bed.
And at least it helped us brush up on our French. Where is the educational value in a jaunt that includes seven nights’ stay in a Barbados hotel, “traditional evening entertainment”, a catamaran cruise and a trip to a local water park?
It sounds more like a trip straight out of reality television show Made in Chelsea than the national curriculum. Just what exactly will this do to prepare youngsters for the world after school, besides encouraging them to join the ranks of the desperate wannabes who want a champagne lifestyle on alcopop money?
This is precisely the reason why some youngsters grow up knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
Understandably, it has sparked renewed debate about the mounting cost of school trips and their educational merit – or lack of it.
Horsforth School has declined to answer questions about how many teachers are going on the trip and how their places are being paid for, instead it has sought to defend the visit by saying it was partly driven by student demand.
Personally, I wanted to go on a spaceship to the moon when I was 10 – but I didn’t expect a school trip there any time soon. The fact is that children – and sorry if this comes as a shock – don’t always know what’s best for them.
Given the choice, I’m not sure I would have voted for hiking across what felt like most of North Wales or getting soaked to the bone trying to put up a tent in the middle of a gale in the East Midlands.
But those things taught me far more about myself than a day on a Caribbean beach ever could. They gave me new skills and filled me with confidence that I could cope with a few challenges.
As far as the money issue goes, teachers need to realise that trips like this immediately drive a wedge between those youngsters whose parents can afford it and those whose parents most certainly can’t.
It also comes at a time when the Children’s Commission on Poverty says costs are pricing poorer pupils out of some subjects, with parents unable to afford things like computer access, let alone expensive foreign trips.
Its recent report noted that the impact of school costs is leading to youngsters feeling embarrassed, bullied and excluded because they can’t afford the same things as their peers.
And anyway, why is there a need to take 10-hour flights to such far-flung destinations as the Caribbean when there is so much on children’s doorsteps?
If teachers are looking for sport, art, culture and a great outdoors that will inspire their pupils to do brilliant things then I can think of one outstanding candidate.
It starts with a “Y”, ends in an “e” and there’s a “shire” in the middle.