Acting Head of Research and Policy Carl Cullinane unpicks the findings of our latest report, Parent Power, and how cultural capital can make a difference to a child’s education.

Last month saw the publication of the Sutton Trust’s Parent Power report, showing the influence parents have throughout the school lifecycle of their children, and how this differs substantially between parents from different ends of the economic spectrum. Our Research Fellow Rebecca Montacute has already discussed the financial pressures parents are under, from high house prices near the best performing state schools to the increasing levels of financial contributions requested by schools. However, parental influence can make a difference to their child’s schooling in a variety of other ways, as our infographic shows.

Children with parents from professional or managerial backgrounds are more likely to be highly educated, and possess the savvy and confidence required to navigate an increasingly complicated and competitive education system. These indicators of knowledge and understanding of education are examples of cultural capital, non-financial resources that refer to the knowledge, behaviours and skills valued by a particular culture or society. However, cultural capital is frequently just as unequally distributed as financial capital, and the two often go hand in hand, with cultural capital ultimately proving exclusionary to those who don’t possess it.

This process is also at play in the school system. Our research shows parents from higher social classes are much more likely to read Ofsted reports and school league tables when choosing schools, allowing them to make informed decisions on the best local school. The last few years have also seen the Department for Education introduce Progress 8 as the new school accountability measure to more accurately capture how schools contribute to their pupils’ attainment. However, in our study just one in five parents report familiarity with the measure, even among parents with children on the cusp of starting secondary school. More worryingly, parents from professional backgrounds are 3.5 times more likely to be familiar with the new measure, indicating that league tables have improved their accuracy at the expense of public understanding and equity.

Children from higher social class backgrounds are also more likely to receive parental support while at school. While parents of all backgrounds report regularly helping their child with homework, young people themselves report that those from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to receive daily support. When middle class parents can’t support through homework, they are able to do so through private tutoring, and are five times more likely to provide private tuition to their kids compared to working class parents.

The social and educational background of parents also affects their knowledge and understanding of the school examination system, and thus their ability to support their child. The last two years have seen the introduction of the new 9-1 scale for the GCSE examination. Worries have been expressed over public understanding of the new scale and the consequences for university admissions and job applications for the first cohorts of students taking the new exams. Despite a large-scale programme launched by the government to raise awareness, our new research is not encouraging, with fewer than half of parents correctly identifying that 9 is the highest grade. Working class parents and those with lower education levels were also much more likely to answer incorrectly.

Similar patterns are also seen when it comes to advising young people on their next steps after school. While three quarters of parents overall felt confident advising their child on university choices, the figure rises to 90% of parents with a degree, but just 53% of those with a GCSE level education.

Parents have a substantial effect on children and young people’s pathways through education, and can significantly shape their chances of success. But the ability to maximise the chances of success is hugely dependent on their social background. Parents from all backgrounds want the best for their children, but many are limited by financial resources, cultural capital and their own upbringing in trying to do so.

With such inequalities at home, society needs to work harder to make sure all children have the chance of a good start in life. Schools are not a cure-all for the ills of an unequal society, but they have a powerful potential to spread opportunity, and we need to do more to harness that potential.

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