Middle Class ‘Free Schools’

The Guardian reported the following headline this week:

Free schools built in mainly middle-class and wealthy areas

There’s a surprise.

It might be reasonable to assume that such surprise is genuine.  After all, only last year Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education announced that:

“Free Schools will enable excellent teachers to create new schools and improve standards for all children”

In itself, the title of this news release from the Department for Education (DfE) reveals confused logic.  Firstly, why do teachers need to set up new schools in order to continue their excellence? Secondly, if excellent teachers are leaving one school to set up a new school, what happens to the excellence in the school they have left?  Thirdly, how does this then improve standards for all pupils, rather than those fortunate enough to find themselves in new schools with excellent teachers?

However, we are invited not to critically engage with the discourse employed in DfE news releases, but to accept it.  Goves’ plan focused on addressing the gap in education attainment between children from deprived backgrounds, and those more wealthy. The Free Schools plan was designed to bridge this gap.  The news release from the DfE went on to say:

“The new Free Schools will also be incentivised to concentrate on the poorest children”

By choosing not to impugn the recondite ideological shift to concern with social inequality, it would be reasonable to expect that the 24 Free Schools scheduled to open this month would be located in some of England’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

As the Guardian reports, they are not, are we really surprised?


“There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green”

So says Jill Archer in BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. It comes in response to the extra tuition her grandchildren, twins Freddie and Lily Pargetter are receiving in an attempt to ensure they pass the entrance exam to the Cathedral School in Felpersham.  They currently attend the local state primary school in Loxley Barrett.

Nigel Pargetter, the twins’ father, being almost aristocratic and owning a country estate, always intended for his children to go to his old boarding school Clavisborne. Not quite as posh, more middle class, their mother, Elizabeth Pargetter (née Archer), was, at first, keen to allow them to follow in the Pargetter tradition.  In the summer she began expressing her doubts about boarding school, and so the Pargetters began exploring the possibility of the Cathedral School.  The twins’ cousin, Daniel Hebden Lloyd already attends this school.  His father, Alistair Lloyd wasn’t too happy about this, but conceded, partly because Daniel’s grandparents (the parents of his late biological father) stumped up the fees.

The Pargetters are self-excluding (Whitty, 2001)[1] themselves from state education, following an age-old tradition of the upper classes.  They still intend to self-exclude even though they have taken the decision to have the children attend a school close by.  Borchester Green has never been on their radar.

What is wrong with Borchester Green?

The short answer is, nothing.

Interestingly,  Borchester Green is likely to be seen as a ‘safe choice’ for many middle-class parents who cannot afford the fees for private education.  Granted, Borcetshire, Borchester Green, Ambridge, and The Archers are fictional, but it is reasonable to assume that this rural community has a large middle class population who have colonised the state education provision (ibid).  If they were to attend Borchester Green Freddie and Lily are at an advantage, they come from a wealthy, upper middle class family.  Social class remains the greatest predictor of education success.

Surely though, they would  do better at private school?

Not necessarily, private schools are not homogenous, they don’t all offer the same standard of education (whatever that might be).  In any case, why assume the quality of teaching is any better at a private school?  Importantly, private schools don’t equate to the long-established public schools such as Eton and Harrow for the boys, and Roedean for girls.  Here, social networks are likely to be as significant as academic credentials for a successful future life.  I’m not sure that the Cathedral School in Felpersham is quite in the same league.  Additionally, despite their obvious poshness, I’m not sure that the Pargetters are in the same elite social networks as those families who have sent their offspring to Eton and Harrow for generations.

The Pargetters could do no worse than save their money.  Jill Archer is right, the Pargetters have little to fear from Borchester Green.  It is almost as if she had read the recent report from the Sutton Trust which found that students from comprehensive schools outperformed at degree level, those students who went to either Independent or Grammar School.

However, someone should inform the Pargetters that they may have missed the deadline date for applying for a place at secondary school.

Continue reading ““There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green””

Animal Farm at Waterloo Road

This week, Ruby and Steph took a group of pupils to a farm.  The catchment area of Waterloo Road apparently having been extended somewhat, beyond the deprived post industrial landscape of Rochdale’s least popular secondary school. 

There was little evidence of a risk assessment, either by the school, or, indeed, the farm.  It is doubtful that the trip location, the Moran’s farm, would have qualified for a ‘quality badge‘ indicating that it was providing a good learning experience outside of the classroom.

During the trip, one set of pupils disappeared to drink alcohol and, in their drunken frolics, a barrel of chemicals spilt onto Josh, necessitating a trip to the local Accident and Emergency department.   Meanwhile, a couple of girls engaged in some animal liberation, and let some piglets out of their pen,  smuggling one, unnoticed onto the bus and back to the school, naming it ‘Albert’.  Albert made a bid for freedom and ran round the school corridors, only to be returned to the farmer.   Sambuca Kelly, the animal liberator, had, clearly not grasped the harsh reality of farming and the food cycle, despite studying food technology.  However, she was relieved to be informed that ‘Albert’, who, it turned out, was a girl, would be saved from slaughter (for the time being at least) and would be used for breeding, so that other little piglets could, instead be sent to the abattoir. 

Waterloo Road, an everyday story of country folk

The rather dilapidated state of the farm was due to Mr Moran struggling to keep things in order following the death of his father.  Ruby immediately assumed the role of grief counsellor, and drew on a rather problematic model of bereavement, suggesting that Mr Moran finish grieving and that he ‘let go’, as you do. 

Chaos was also unfolding back at the school. Kim and Chris had, in a week, set up a mentoring scheme.  This had been prompted by the previous week’s custody battle.  As Head of Pastoral Care, Kim appears to be making things up as she goes along.  Had she never heard of the National Peer Mentoring Programme?  Did Kim and Chris really have time to attend one of their training courses, and manage to train the peer mentors, in the space of a week?  Given the evidence, the disastrous, yet entertaining consequences of their efforts, it would seem not. 

So, as usual, an interesting representation of a comprehensive school, and one which adheres to some popular stereotypes, though, thankfully, Waterloo Road is not a representation of reality.

Atheist Miliband and his son’s CofE Primary School

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

Middle class parents and prejudice against comprehensive schools

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.

Continue reading “Middle class parents and prejudice against comprehensive schools”

Secondary School Admissions

The publication this week, Secondary school admissions in England: Admission Forums, local authorities and schools by the LSE has brought into question the fairness of school admissions.  The report, written by  Philip Noden and Anne West from the LSE’s Education Research Group is actually the 2nd of two reports  undertaken on behalf of Research and Information on State Education (RISE) looking at school admissions.  While this latest report examines the role of Local Education Authorities and, importantly the role of  School Admissions Forums  (bodies set up to advise LEAs on school admission arrangements taking a particular interest in looked after children and pupils with special educational needs ) it is the non compliance of some schools with admissions code that has captured the attention of recent news reports. 

Headlines have included Schools ‘trying to steal pupils’  from the BBC, and from the Guardian; Schools use dirty tricks to attract best pupils. These dramatic headlines refer to some of the practices reported by the LSE researchers.  These included a school which altered its admission policy with the effect that children living on a social housing estate now had a much reduced chance of being admitted to the secondary school whose catchment area previously included their neighbourhood.  Some schools required parents to complete supplementary information forms, against the Admissions Code. Other schools which were undersubscribed  contacted parents to encourage them to reject their offer from a more popular, oversubscribed school.  In the case of another school it used proximity as a measure on which to allocate offers.  However it did not use the proximity of the child’s address to the school as a criteria which would have been logical. Instead it altered its admissions policy, ranking applicants according to their proximity to a building half a mile away from the school.  Even this admissions policy did not break the Admissions Code and the LEA had not objected to this change in policy.

The findings in the RISE report, aren’t, in fact news, and they are not surprising in the context of a quasi market in education fuelled by the A*-C economy.  In 2004 researchers from, again from the LSE, including Anne West , co-author of the RISE report published research observing the admissions practices of secondary schools in England.  Their analysis revealed that Voluntary Aided and Foundation schools in particular (who have responsibility for their own admissions) adopted criteria which included some groups of pupils while excluding others.  While admissions criteria are designed to do just that the concern is that schools are selecting pupils who are likely to maintain or enhance the school’s rating in league tables, and thus ensuring the school remains a popular choice among potential parents.  In this study, (published in the Oxford Review of Education) West along with fellow researchers Audrey Hind and Hazel Pennell, observed a range of admission criteria, several of which were inconsistent with local Admissions Codes, including some which they termed “idiosyncratic”, “not clear, objective or fair” (p. 359) and  which included, for example admission on the basis of the good conduct of an older sibling.  They concluded that schools which controlled their own admissions criteria were in an advantageous position in the quasi market of education.  This means that these schools in particular are able to cream off the best pupils; often those from middle class backgrounds, while not selecting those from more deprived neighbourhoods and those more likely to be excluded from school.  From a sociological perspective it is possible to see this as an example of the ways in which the education system is implicated in the reproduction of socio-economic inequalities, challenging the common-sense view that education is a route out of poverty.