I used to think a career in charity was a contradiction in terms; that charities, by definition were staffed by unpaid or minimally paid volunteers. I’ve since identified a typical arc of concern amongst certain very-middle-class parents of my acquaintance. They work for international NGOs or legal entities; they spend their days, as lawyers, administrators, fundraisers and so forth, promoting the interests of the world’s most desperate; disaster victims, migrants, refugees and the rest. They are Guardian-reading liberals; their children mostly attend state schools. Some of their children even attend schools with the children, or the not-so-distant cousins of the children of the very same desperate peoples they may be supporting from their London offices.
Don’t mistake me; all respect to these professionals and the work they do. However they sometimes illustrate that altruism has its limits; that we all do so much and no more; and that professional and private points of view are very different things. They are so busy improving things for the underprivileged abroad that they have little patience with their child’s similarly underprivileged classmates and are as keen as any private-school parent for her to leave them far behind, academically and socially. Many wouldn’t even consider subjecting him/her to “underprivileged” classmates in the first place.
I watch my own son, proud of how he chooses his friends from the range of children in his socially and ethnically mixed class, as happy to engage with special-needs kids as with – if they can spare him a moment – the “alpha” ones. He’s never been a class-alpha himself, too young, too shy, and sometimes, I suspect, too brown; and he doesn’t share their competitive mentality. But he’s not a sucker; he will always walk away from any hint that he is being put down, or patronised.
As for them; the very-competitive children, the ones who led the field in confidence and just about everything else in reception class: towards the end of Year One some are starting to look a little isolated. They watch a touch wistfully as children who once clung to their parents at drop-off now streak happily away, racing and bantering together; not waiting for their leadership, just leaving them behind. Our class is growing up fast, and the late-starters, the youngest, the ones with little English initially, are growing up fastest of all. Some of the former-alphas will have to rethink their taken-for-granted superiority or face gradual classroom exclusion. It would help them, I reckon, if their parents did the same.