The Daily Mail today runs a story about that the well known irreligious member of the Labour Cabinet, David Miliband. Miliband is an atheist, but his son attends a Church School.
It is a situation that the Daily Mail could not resist. It has accused him of ‘hypocrisy’ and of playing the admission system to get his son into a Church School. This accusation arises because David Miliband is an atheist and there are a number of non faith schools closer to the Miliband’s home.
However is this accusation really fair? Today, the Labour Government presides over a quasi market in education. Introduced by a Conservative Government, the 1988 Education Act introduced the concept of parental choice in education. This meant that parents have the freedom to choose the school they want to send their child to. The theory behind this was that this would drive up standards, parents would choose the ‘best’ schools, forcing other less popular schools to improve their standards in order to attract more pupils. ‘Bad’ schools would close, and rightly so as they weren’t very good at providing education. Parent power would rule and standards would rise.
Except, of course, as sociologists of education will tell us, this quasi market place has resulted in a ‘parentocracy‘ (see Brown, P (1990) ‘The ‘Third Wave’: Education and the Ideology of Parentocracy’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 65-85) and the playing out of class strategies, (see Ball, S.J (1993) ‘Education Markets, Choice and Social Class: The Market as a Class Strategy in the UK and the USA’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 3-19).
So, we now have a system whereby middle class parents can work the system to get their child into their chosen school. They can do this in numerous ways, by moving to the right catchment areas, in the case of faith schools by demonstrating their religious dedication by attending school, and, by using different addresses. They are able to seek out the best schools in the first place, exercising their ‘cultural capital’.
The exercising of cultural capital is not discouraged by the current Government, although rule breaking in relation to schools’ admissions is, and has been highlighted . Several local authorities have investigated the claims that some parents have made in an attempt to get their child into their chosen school.
The Milibands then, are just doing what they expect other parents to do. Choosing a school that is not your nearest school is quite acceptable in the context of parental choice. The Miliband’s are simply choosing the school they want. David may well be an atheist, but his wife is not, and David has not been attending church so cannot himself be accused of feigning a religious conversion to get his son into a Church school. The accusation that he is a ‘hypocrite’ is not substantiated.
Of course, parental choice in the education market does have consequences, especially for those children who have little choice or ability to engage with this market place, and, end up, attending their local school, which then appears as a ‘failing’ school, because of its disadvantaged intake. The Miliband children would doubtlessly do very well whichever school they went to. They are middle class, and the education system is, to borrow from their Grandfather Ralph Miliband “rigged from the start against its working-class competitors“