Middle class angst and secondary schools

Issue date: 20 February 2008

Professor David James
Embargo - 00:01 hours Thursday 21 February

Middle class angst and secondary schools
What is the 'best' option?

Middle class parental angst about secondary school choice, the decision to pay for their children's education or move house for a 'better' state school are the issues at the heart of a recent collaborative study carried out by researchers at the University of the West of England, the University of Cambridge and the University of Sunderland.

The study focuses on the opposite to so-called 'white flight', looking at those white urban middle class parents who have made the conscious choice for their children to be educated at their local state secondary whatever the league table positioning.

The research team, jointly led by Professor Diane Reay from the University of Cambridge, Professor Gill Crozier from the University of Sunderland and Professor David James at the UWE, was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a larger nationwide programme of research on identities and social action.

Entitled 'Identity, Educational Choice and the White Urban Middle Classes', the study covers a 30-month period and was conducted in London and two cities (one in the North of England, the other in the South) that have been given the names Riverton and Norton to protect the identities of the families and schools that have taken part.

Professor James explains, “Lots of middle class people move house, decide to pay for private education, rediscover religious allegiances or even rent a new address to get the secondary schooling that the market appears to hold up as 'best'. But we wanted to discover what motivates parents who instead choose to send their children to local comprehensives that appear to be performing poorly on the conventional measure, which is the proportion of pupils who attain at least five GCSEs at grade A* to C. Most children who have had this choice made for them by the parents taking part in this study have gone on to perform brilliantly in GSCEs, A-levels and then on to university entrance, including a much higher than average entry to Oxbridge.”

Professor Crozier added “We used in-depth interviews to explore motivations surrounding identity, confidence, community spirit and social diversity. Findings demonstrate that the parents making the positive choice to send their children to the local school are in general very highly educated (83 per cent have degrees with 23 per cent also having studied at Postgraduate level).

“Schools were seen to make special efforts to accommodate the children. Parents are very involved with the schools with many taking active roles on school governing bodies. The children often get special attention as they are nurtured by teachers who are keen to give extra help to improve the school's results.

“Children from these families are very often placed on the Gifted and Talented programmes giving them an advantaged access to resources compared to many children in schools that have better results overall but where there is more competition for the limited places on such schemes.

“Feedback from parents shows that there is a healthy cynicism surrounding league tables. However, our analysis also shows that many of these parents are making a calculated investment which, whilst it feels risky to them, has very high returns because their children tend to be very well supported and to do very well.”

The study also looked at the sorts of advantages that the choice of school seemed to bring. Professor Reay added, “In general we found that parents were keen that their children experienced social diversity though developing friendships with children from a wide spectrum of social and ethnic backgrounds. As one parent put it –“experience of a wide social mix will make my daughter a better doctor”. In this sense the choice of a particular school could be seen to pay dividends in terms of the child's exposure to a wide range of backgrounds, equipping them to be better citizens or professionals in later life. However the study also found that although the children were engaged in a social mix, in general 'social mixing' did not occur and the children mostly formed friendships with the other white middle class children inside and outside their school.

“Like higher-risk financial investments, counter-intuitive school choice is monitored very closely. Parents recognised that ultimately one of their options was to 'pull out' if things did not go well. The report shows that this positive choice to select the local school when other opportunities are available can be seen as a clever investment strategy by knowledgeable parents who understand that their children are very likely to do well by virtue of their background”

A report summary is available at UWE online


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