Dr Rebecca Montacute, Research Fellow at the Sutton Trust, unpicks the key findings from our latest report, Parent Power.

Parents from all backgrounds want to do the best for their children. However, when it comes to education, this is far easier for the parents who have networks, knowledge and financial resources at their disposal. Many better-off parents make use of this ‘parent power’ in the school system, to ensure that their own children can stay ahead. Money is a particularly powerful way in which parents can aid their children’s education; and is one of the issues explored in the new Sutton Trust report, Parent Power 2018.

Paying for a child to attend private school is the most obvious way in which parents buy educational advantage for their children. Private school attendance is still heavily divided by socioeconomic background, despite the bursaries and scholarships available. In our survey, 12% of professional parents (social group A) said that they send their children to a fee-paying school, but just 1% of working class parents (social group D) said the same.

Even in the state school system, money still plays a huge role in the school which a child attends. Distance to school is a common criteria in school admissions, but previous Sutton Trust research has shown that houses near to top schools carry a substantial premium. In our survey, 14% of professional parents of children in state schools said they had moved to an area they thought had good schools, compared to just 4% of working class parents.

Better-off parents were also more likely to say they had moved into the catchment area of a specific school they wanted their child to attend, and that they have employed a private tutor to help their children to pass the entrance tests for a particular school. Indeed, the use of private tuition is common amongst better-off parents, who are five times more likely to report that their child has ever received private tuition (31% compared to 6%).

Worryingly, some parents are being actively prevented from making certain school choices due to financial constraints. Over half of working class parents said that the cost of travel (65%) or uniforms (56%) played a significant part in their decision making. These figures were much lower for professional parents, with just 43% saying that travel played a significant role in their decision, and only 34% saying the same for the cost of uniforms.

To make matters worse, schools are currently under a substantial amount of financial pressure. From Somerset to Manchester; several schools have made headlines in the last few years after asking parents to make substantial financial contributions. In polling for our report, 39% of school leaders said that requests for extra financial contributions made by their school had increased in the last two years, and half of parents (49%) with children in state schools said that their school had asked them for such contributions in the last twelve months.

Professional parents (59%) are more likely to have been asked for contributions than working class (37%) parents; even though schools across the socioeconomic spectrum are facing funding issues. Worryingly, it seems that schools with more affluent parents can draw on their financial resources to soften the blow, whereas schools in more disadvantaged areas are more likely to need to raid pupil premium funds to plug gaps in their budget. 40% of disadvantaged schools say they use their pupil premium funding to close gaps in their budget, compared to only 30% of schools in more advantaged schools.

The financial resources of a child’s parents can continue to have an impact after formal lessons have ended; in their access to extracurricular activities, which can be vital to help children build essential life skills such as confidence, motivation and resilience. In our survey, 84% of professional parents reported their child took part in at least one after school activity or class, compared to just 45% of working class parents. This is likely, at least in part, to be due to financial constraints, as parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to say their children took part in activities which didn’t need to be paid for.

Change is needed to make sure that a parent’s financial resources do not limit the opportunities and experiences available to their children. That’s why the Sutton Trust is recommending changes to the school admissions system, including schools giving priority to pupil premium students (after those in care) when schools are oversubscribed. We’re also suggesting that more schools, particularly in urban areas, introduce ballots or banding, to ensure a wider mix of pupils can access the best schools.

It is vital that schools are well resourced, so that they do not need to use parental contributions or their pupil premium funding to plug budget gaps elsewhere. The government should also ensure that parents of children eligible for free school meals are aware of their rights to free transport to a choice of three schools within six miles of their home (or up to 15 miles for faith schools). Finally, to help equalise access to private tuition and extracurricular activities, the Sutton Trust is recommending that a means tested voucher system, funded through the pupil premium, is introduced for tuition and enrichment.

Even if a level playing field remains out of reach, these steps can at least help to reduce the impact that a parent’s financial resources have on their child’s education.

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