Professor David Woods, the Chief Adviser for London Schools this week criticised a number of middle class parents for their reluctance, often refusal to send their children to local comprehensives.

In London, the area his role is focused on, the problem of middle class parents abandoning the local comprehensive school is greater than in other parts of the country.

In the Guardian article which reports Woods’ concerns it is stated:

In London, the proportion of parents choosing private schools is higher than in the rest of the country, with 9% of 15-year-olds attending private schools. Across England, the number of 10-year-olds who attend state primary schools and transfer to a private secondary school is 2.3%, while in London it is 3.7%

Why are these parents abandoning the local comp?

Comprehensive Schools do not get a good press, especially in the Daily Mail as indicated by these headlines:

State pupils can be uncontrollable and are unlikely to achieve academically, says private schools chief

State pupils ‘miss out on university because of bad teaching, not bias’

These kind of headlines must contribute to and reinforce parents’ fears about the local comp.

In drama too, comprehensive schools just don’t appear to be very attractive.  Remember Grange Hill from the BBC?  According to the Daily Mail, again, it was cut because real comprehensives are worse than the fiction portrayed in that drama series.

Today we have Waterloo Road which as has been described elsewhere on this blog isn’t exactly attractive to middle class parents wanting the best educational experience and outcomes for their children.

Sociologists of education have studied the behaviour of middle class parents in the education market place that was created by the 1988 Education Act.  Most notably there is Stephen Ball.  Middle class parents employ strategies to get their children into the school of their choice, this can range from moving house to a different catchment area to secure a place at a more desireable school.  It can mean immersing themselves into the life of the local church in order to get their child into a church school.  Sociologists often refer to the ways in which middle class parents are able to use their cultural capital (see Bourdieu for more) in order to secure advantage in the education market.

The education system itself does little to discourage the use of cultural capital by parents, following the 1988 Education Act we have a quasi education market in which parents have (in theory) a choice over which school to send their child too, supported by a range of different school types, including comprehensive schools, grammar schools, specialist schools and academies.  For those who want out of the state system and can afford it there are private schools.  Choice may appear to be democratic, expect that some parents are better able to exercise a choice and get what they want than others are.  The result is that there are class advantages to be seen in education.  Those whose parents have little cultural capital and who can’t afford to move to ‘better’ catchment area have little choice to go to the apparently failing local comprehensive school.  Though in reality the local comp may not actually be failing, standards may be rising, and as educational attainment is related to social class, those who are in the ‘failing’ schools are more likely to be working class pupils who traditionally achieve lower grades than their middle class counterparts – this may go someway to explaining why ‘standards’ may appear to be low in these schools.

Professor Woods is right, however when education has become a commodity it is hardly surprising that parents will employ whatever they can to get their child into the school of their choice, even if that child would do equally as well at the local comp.

For more on Stephen Ball and the middle classes in education see this book:

 S.J. (2003) Class Strategies and the Education Market: the middle class and social advantage, London: RoutledgeFalmer


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