UK Schools: Social Mobility or Cultural Reproduction?

One of the persistent debates around education is the extent to which it serves as an agency of social mobility, as opposed to one of cultural reproduction:

Mobility proponents, for example, argue education – and the credentials it creates – is one of, if not the, most important sources of social mobility in democratic societies: the sons and daughters of different social classes compete against one another for educational qualifications on a reasonably-level playing field.

Reproduction theorists, on the other hand, argue education systems have the appearance of fairness and equal competition while, in reality, Higher Economic Status (HES) parents are able, through a combination of their higher levels of economic, social and cultural capital, to “play the system” to ensure their sons and daughters are the ultimate winners in the education game.

Parent Power 1

How they do this has been explored in a couple of recent Sutton Trust Reports, the latest of which, by Montacute and Cullinane (2018), suggests strong evidence of cultural reproduction in the sense:

Parents play a significant role in the educational development of their children [that] differs substantially according to the social class of the parent”.

This general role can be broken-down into three broad forms:

1. Organising and managing a child’s route through the school system.

2. Supporting children academically with help and advice.

3. Providing children with the financial resources to maximise the impact of their education.

In other words, the higher the economic status of parents, the more-significant their role in the management of their children’s educational career, something that can be broken-down into a range of specific ways “Parent Power” is harnessed in pursuit of securing a child’s education.

When choosing schools, for example, 75% of HES parents were more likely to:

  • attend open days
  • read Ofsted reports
  • speak to other parents at the school
  • examine league tables
  • consult local authority or other education websites.
  • Similarly, HES parents were much more likely – and able – to use additional strategies such as:

  • moving to an area with high-rated schools, both Comprehensive and Grammar
  • moving to a specific school catchment area to qualify their children for entrance
  • employing private tutors for school entrance tests, such as the 11+.
  • While these strategies are quite legal, a notable percentage (around 30%) of HES parents were also more-likely to:

  • employ ethically dubious practices, such as “attending church services purely for the purpose of accessing a school
  • use potentially-criminal strategies – such as “buying or renting a second home in a catchment area or using a relative’s address to gain access to a particular school” – to secure their preferred choice.
  • While HES parents were better-positioned to secure places for their children in “desirable schools” (for which read “those with high social and academic status”), at the lower end of the class scale significant economic factors limited school choice. These included things like the:

  • cost of travel to school (cited as a barrier by 66% of Lower Economic Status (LES) parents)
  • cost of uniforms
  • informal financial contributions requested by the school (general funding for things like IT and Sports’ funding).
  • As Montacute and Cullinane note: “Schools across the socioeconomic spectrum are facing substantial budgetary challenges, but those with more affluent parents are able to draw on those financial resources as a buffer”.

    Parent Power 2

    While the ability to secure (or not) a desired choice of school is signficant, the process of cultural reproduction doesn’t stop at the school gates. Within schools, parents of different social classes are differentially placed in the type and level of help they can give their children.

    While “the majority of parents report regularly helping with their child’s homework”, HES parents were more-likely to:

  • help their children “very regularly” (i.e. more than once a week)
  • provide more-effective help and support, as perceived by their children
  • employ a private tutor to work alongside classroom teachers (30% of HES parents compared to 6% of LES parents).
  • While “a high proportion of parents in all social groups attend parents’ evenings either always or most of the time (all over 85%)”, HES parents were more-likely to claim that “either the school, or they themselves had changed something following a parents evening”. Interestingly, a slightly-higher-proportion of HES parents (37% as opposed to 29%) “reported that school staff changed the way they worked with their child after a parents evening”.

    HES parents (36% as compared to 13%) were also “considerably more likely to report taking on a representative or supportive role in their child’s school, including governorships, PTA membership, or sitting on a multi-academy trust (MAT) board”.

    More Parent Power

    These findings broadly reflect (replicate) those found in a previous Sutton Trust study by Francis and Hutching (2013) that examined:

    The extent to which professional parents are able to gain an advantage over other families in the (UK) school system” through a combination of “financial and cultural resources used to boost their children’s chances of educational success”.

    Their main conclusions can be summarised thus:

    1. Some professional (middle class) parents used their financial capital explicitly, either to purchase a private (high status) education or to purchase a home in the catchment area of a high-performing State maintained school, thereby qualifying their children for entrance to the school.

    Other strategies employed by this group included paying for private tuition and attending religious services as a means of gaining entry to higher-status Church Schools.

    2. Middle class parents were more likely to be “Informed choosers” (around 60% of middle-class parents and 50% of working class parents) who used “at least one independent documentary source of information and one experiential source” as the basis for choosing a school.

    3. A further sub-group of parents (Hyper Choosers) used “5 or more sources of information” to inform their choice of school. This group was far more-likely to include HES parents.

    4. Once parents had achieved their desired choice of school, various forms of cultural and social capital came into play to ensure their sons and daughters maintained a competitive advantage over their lower-class peers:

  • supporting children with their school work through family members or private tutors
  • regularly attending parental evenings and using information gained from teachers to help support their children at home and school
  • frequent contacts and discussions between middle class parents and teachers to discuss child’s progress
  • middle class parents were “more likely to become a governor or join the Parent Teacher Association”
  • providing enrichment activities, “such as attending plays and concerts, museum and gallery visits, and regular out of school classes”.
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