“Sharp-elbowed parents” are admirable role models fighting for their children’s interests, the schools minister David Laws told a parliamentary committee, after complaining that Britain was a nation with low aspirations.
Asked by a member of the Commons education committee about charges that “the sharp-elbowed middle classes dominate the system and school places”, Laws replied that those complaints were misplaced – and that pushy parents and those willing to pay for private schooling were worth emulating.
“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,” Laws told the committee.
“To do all you can to help your children to succeed in life is exactly what we want everybody to be doing. I’m afraid we can’t cap any of those opportunities. What we want to do is extend them to young people who are not getting them at the moment.”
But Laws defended the Department for Education’s efforts to encourage selective state schools in England to admit a higher proportion of children from disadvantaged areas.
“We are trying to talk to grammar schools about giving young people fairer access opportunities.
“We are trying to allow them to use the pupil premium as a factor in their admissions policies. We are trying to encourage them to ensure that [admissions] testing is fairer to young people and it’s not just coachable,” Laws said.
Appearing before the education committee’s hearing into underachievement in white working-class children, Laws told MPs that a culture of low aspirations was partly to blame. “I think there has been a poverty of expectations in the past throughout all aspects of the system, to be honest, for which everyone has responsiblility … I don’t think we set our national expectations at nearly a high enough level.”
Laws argued that the evidence from the turnaround of schools in London showed that there was “no reason” why schools couldn’t see 85% of their pupils getting five good passes at GCSE level.
But he said there were too many local authorities and academy chains where “even today, after all the pressure from the last government and this government, aspirations are way too low in local areas and schools”.
“It’s frustrating to hear that some of those low aspirations and tolerance of failure are still around in 2013 and 2014 when they should have been extinguished many years ago.”
But Laws added that there were many reasons for the poor educational results of white working-class children, who in recent years have made up the lowest-achieving group in the education system.
“I think that many of the problems with low attainment in school are due to factors that are outside the school gate: parental support or lack of support, parental aspirations, poverty in the home environment, poor housing, lack of experience of life,” he said.
Changing those things was a “challenge for all governments” but the evidence from areas such as inner London showed that targeted efforts could produce “radical improvements in performance through education-related interventions”.
Laws was also asked about the controversial views of Prof Robert Plomin, who has claimed that half the differences in attainment between pupils had genetic causes.
“Sometimes professors say things that are accurate and sometimes they say things that are inaccurate,” Laws replied disdainfully. “In any case, I’m not sure what policy implications that would have for us. Our focus is on trying to achieve big improvements in attainment … we would want to do that whatever genetic characteristics particular individuals might have.”
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