How much is too much for a good school?

Cape Town – Every week I am supposed to write a column.

And this week, it appeared that my ideas folder had run dry.

That’s partly because I am much pre-occupied with the dreadful, all consuming task that besets the parents of Grade 7 pupils: the finding of a suitable high school.

We did some research and went to some school open days last year (on the sensible advice of a friend, who said that helps ease the pressure when you hit Grade 7) and have found a school we love – and our son has been given a place there.

The trouble is that it is an extremely expensive private school. We have a fund of money saved for high school, but it will pay only for the first two years. The other three years will have to come out of other money, which I had rather thought was earmarked for our retirement.

So I have been grappling with deep questions: Do we pay on the basis that nothing is more important than a good education? Do we try to find another school? What if he doesn’t get into one of the really good state schools? There is still tertiary education to come – how do we balance that against the cost of high school? And how does all that balance with the need to fund our retirement? And what about the backdrop of education as a whole in this country, and the privilege inherent in even having all these choices?

Some of these thoughts were echoed by an article in the Daily Mail, in which British radio presenter Justin Webb tells the story of the extremely expensive saga that occurred when his dog Toffee ate a sock.

Webb muses: “I did wonder a bit more about the good sense, the morality of the saving of Toffee. The final bill will be more than £5,000. So how much money is the right amount to be willing to spend on a dog? Should we forego a holiday to pay for Toffee’s care? A difficult one. What level of sacrifice is right and proportionate and, well, decent?”

He concludes that if they had not had pet medical aid, the decision would have been easy: no operation for Toffee.

Back in our Cape Town household, my instinctive feeling is that putting the extremely expensive school before all the other long-term needs is not the sensible course of action – though it may the right one on another level. And on the other hand, many people have said to me that the school in question is absolutely worth it, and that any sacrifice is justified.

At the heart of this is a fundamental parenting question: does the child come first? do the parents come first? does the family as a whole come first?

The jury is out on this for me. I continue to wrestle with this, and will I am sure still be wrestling in years to come.

But I did at least get a column out of it.