23 November 2009

Not Caring Tuppence

In today's Evening Standard, Felix Allen reports of a nursery school in north London which is, according to the piece, charging parents who arrive late to pick up their children. Immediately, I thought of Freakonomics, where I first read about the oft-referenced study by Gneezy and Rustichini conducted in ten day-care centres in Haifa, Israel. The researchers found that after the day-care centres introduced a fine for late pick-ups, the number of late-comers increased and that even after the fine was removed, the number of late arrivals didn't tail off. I don't have access to the full study, but according to Levitt and Dubner, in Freakonomics, the day-care centres swapped a moral or social incentive for a financial one when they introduced the fines. "If I'm paying $3 every time I pick up my child late, I've paid a financial penalty therefore I don't need to feel guilty."

It will be interesting to see what happens at the north London nursery because while in the Haifa study parents only had to pay a fine of $3 per late pick-up on top of the monthly bill, which was around $380, which isn't really a great deal, the London nursery is allegedly charging parents £5 for every minute late they arrive. Although I can't find a website for the nursery or find what its monthly charges are, a £50 fine for being ten minutes late is a lot more than the token slap on the wrist of the $3 fee in Haifa. Will it be enough of a deterrent to stop parents showing up late?

Charging by the minute certainly sounds as if it would be more effective than a flat-rate charge. By analogy with the constant dieter who will start his diet "tomorrow" because he caved in the morning and ate a chocolate bar and decided that as he'd already broken the diet, he might as well give up trying to eat healthily for the rest of the day, if parents are just charged a flat fee however late they arrive, no matter what that fee is, there is no incentive for them to hurry up or rush over to collect their offspring from the nursery once they are already late. Charging by the minute for lateness might not reduce the number of times parents arrive late, but it should reduce the length of each lateness.

As someone who is terminally punctual, I ought to side with the nursery and yet I now use public transport often enough to know that no matter how early you set out on a journey, you can't always prepare for leaves on the line, Tube strikes or buses that just don't show up on time, and so even if you have a punctual personality, you may still end up arriving to the cinema too late to get the perfect seat you booked and having to take an inferior seat near the back--or, in the case of the parents of this nursery school, paying £50.

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