Sharp-elbowed parents should help all kids, not just their own

David Laws, the Schools Minister in England, yesterday told the House of Commons Education Select Committee that:

“People sometimes do complain about sharp-elbowed parents and people who seek to invest a huge amount of money to give their young people opportunities in life.”

“But we shouldn’t complain about any parent who is doing those things, whether they are in the state sector or the private sector. To do all you can to help your child succeed in life is what we want everyone to be doing.”

I’m a sharp-elbowed parent. I know how to use my elbows to get what I want for my children, and I have the determination to use them. If I wanted to, I could use my elbows to get my kids ahead of your kids. But why on earth would I want to do that?


My kids are already getting benefits not open to lots of others, many of which I didn’t have as a child. Our money, time and energy go into helping them in lots of ways – maths, music, drama, sports, dancing, activity weeks, literacy – all the usual middle-class gubbins.

As David Laws says, obviously I want my children to succeed in life. But not at the expense of someone else’s kids. Not through unfair advantages. If my kids are going to succeed it’s not going to be because I elbowed someone else’s kids out of the way.

It’s not just that it’s unethical, it’s also counter-productive. My children are going to enjoy school a lot more, and get more from it, if the pupils from the more difficult backgrounds and with less capable parents are getting what they need to be happy and successful too. If you want a selfish argument for altruism, there it is. How does it benefit the successful if the unsuccessful are marginalised, scorned and made to feel inferior?

All too often, schools roll over the top of parents who don’t speak like the teachers, don’t know the jargon, don’t have the skills and the confidence to stand up for their children. Teachers and public officials tend to come from a pretty narrow background, and they usually did well at school themselves. It’s understandable that they will find it easier to engage with the parents with whom they identify. Unfortunately though, that can mean that the children of those parents end up getting preferential treatment in comparison with the kids with parents who don’t have that background.

Birth is a lottery. Children aren’t allocated to their parents on the basis of merit. It’s my job to raise my children as well as I can, but that doesn’t mean my child is inherently more important than your child. If we see society as a ladder to be climbed, in which it is in our interests to stamp on the fingers of others so that our own children may benefit, then we won’t get a society in which those with the greatest talents and attributes have the most success; we’ll end up with a society in which the children of the best climbers are at the top, but beneath them will be a long line of people with sore fingers and bitter resentment. And in a society like that, how will those at the top treat those below them? 

If I was being harsh to David Laws I’d say that I’m not surprised that this sharp-elbowed MP who stole £40,000 from all of us – something that arguably should have seen him in prison – is a big believer in getting what you can for you and yours.

To be fair to him though, his point was that schools and public authorities should even up the score by helping the children of blunt-elbowed parents rather than standing in the way of the sharp-elbowed. Fair enough. But I wish he’d had the vision to go further and say that the sharp-elbowed parents should use their elbows for the benefit of all children and not just their own. Because when parents stand together to save a special school or prevent the closure of their much-loved local school or to transform the school grounds, they can achieve anything: for the good of everyone’s children.


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