Parents caught in start-of-year stationery trap

Get learning: A $50 stationery kit that is recommended by most primary schools at the beginning of each school year.
Get learning: A $50 stationery kit that is recommended by most primary schools at the beginning of each school year.

In a secondhand book store near the office there's a nook hidden behind a blanket strung on a string.

It's the used-porn nook where those with a taste for secondhand girly mags (presumably people with low hygiene standards and no home internet) can go for supplies.

Paper Plus has a similar nook in the Auckland store I visited this week, and the supplies secreted behind it are tinged with more than a whiff of scandal, and are only spoken about in hushed voices.

It's where the school stationery packs are stashed.

I'm new to the world of school stationery bags, but like many more seasoned parents I am already irked because in that world I am treated like a fool. My money is spent for me without my say-so, as though my wallet was an extension of the school budget.

Journo colleagues of mine had been researching stationery packs, noting the opaque relationship between the stationery retailers and schools, some of which receive secretive kickbacks for steering parents to the retailers.

As a result, there were few surprises, only dismay, when I phoned the store I was being sent to by my daughter's school to ask how much the pack I was required to buy would set me back.

$50.10 was the answer.

Perhaps I have some items at home already that I don't need on which I could save some money. What was in it, I ask?

"I'm not allowed to tell you," was the answer.

So, I go on, I come to your store, give you $50 and then I find out what I have bought.

Yes, but all the items were sourced at very competitive prices and I could contact the school if I want to know what I was going to buy before I bought it.

The school, it turns out, does not have the lists available when I email the office.

They are not on its website, either.

Defeated, I go and buy the pack. I am like the legions of time-pressed parents out there, aware that were I able to get a list and source the items at a saving it would not be worth my time to do so.

I must admit to being a bit staggered by the huge weight of stationery that comes in taped-up bags from the curtained nook.

At home my daughter and I kneel, marvelling at the amount of learning that will be required to consume the stationery pile, not to mention to highlighting, gluing, page-marking, pencilling, colouring, markering and scissoring that she will need to do.

I can't fault the value for money. If I spent $50 on stationery, it is the kind of pile I'd expect to come away with.

But still I am irked. I don't like the secrecy. I don't like collusion that's not explained to me. I don't understand the need for post-it notes or highlighters for a 7-year-old.

My daughter got two sets of nice coloured pencils for Christmas and so many Smiggle rubbers that laid end to end they are nearly as long as she is tall. We've got pencils and pencil sharpeners. We've got rulers.

So why have I just bought them in a blind sale in which I had no input?

Will I do it all over again next year and begin amassing pencil sharpeners and rulers at the rate of one a year for each of my kids, and pencils at the rate of twelve a year each?

I understand the efficiency of stationery packs from the schools' perspective. Every kid has what they need (and more) and the stationery doesn't end up on the school budget.

But it all seems a bit casual, this spending of my money, and I can't shake the feeling the stationers are making excess sales as a result - I mean, 50 highlighters for a class of 25 7-year-olds! What's wrong with underlining using one of the 12 HB pencils?

Schools must run efficiently and eliminate waste and duplication. Parents should be afforded the same luxury, and certainly not prevented from attempting it by a lack of information, however unintentional that is.

Sunday Star Times