Parent power for all

Conor Ryan considers today’s new Sutton Trust report showing parent power as the preserve of the professional classes.

A spate of reports in recent weeks has told differing stories about England’s education system.

PISA’s international survey showed a school system that is standing still, with no improvement in our test scores or in our middling position in the ranks of the OECD.

However, the chief inspector’s annual report and the primary league tables last week suggested a more nuanced picture: inner London boroughs improving rapidly and narrowing the attainment gap, leaving many shires and coastal authorities languishing behind.

But while Sir Michael Wilshaw’s view of the ‘unlucky child’ being a victim of geography is backed by the recent improvements in the capital, there is undoubtedly also a case that ‘unlucky’ children lose out on access to many of the most successful schools because they are born into low or middle income households.

That is something confirmed by today’s remarkable new Sutton Trust report, Parent Power?by Professor Becky Francis, of King’s College London and Professor Merryn Hutchings, of London Metropolitan University. Drawing on YouGov interviews with 1,173 parents of school-age children, the report shows the extent to which parents’ ability to pick a good school is dependent on ability to pay.

Some of the report’s findings on the prevalence of private tuition or parents’ willingness to pay for private education if they can afford it echo earlier polling for the Sutton Trust and other organisations, including the Independent Schools Council.

The report puts figures on a phenomenon we all know happens, but which has not been properly documented previously, one which contributes to the social segregation and inequality of our education system: the extent to which parents have moved house or used even more unorthodox methods, such as faking piety or accessing an accommodating address in a desirable catchment temporarily in order to cheat the system.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the middle classes who have the money and drive to make the move: almost a third of professional parents in social groups A and B has moved to an area which they thought had good schools, and 18% have moved to live in the catchment area of a specific school. A minority of parents with children at state schools also admitted to cheating the system:

·         2% of parents admitted to buying a second home and using that address so that their children could gain access to a specific school, including 5% of the upper middle classes

·         3% admitted using a relative’s address for that purpose, including 6% of the upper middle classes

·         6% admitted attending church services when they didn’t previously so their child could go to a church school, including 10% in the upper middle classes

However, buying advantage is about more than getting into a desirable home. It is also about extending that advantage through enrichment activities while the child is still at school. And while some enrichment is free to all – open access to museums, galleries or parks, for example – other activities cost money and are disproportionately available to those who can pay for them.

Our report todays shows  that professional parents were also more likely to pay for weekly music, drama or sporting lessons and activities outside school, with more than two-thirds (68%) of professionals doing so compared with 47% of working class parents and 31% of the lowest income parents. The gap was narrower for free cultural activities such as a visit to a museum or gallery than for paid cultural activities like attending a play or a concert.

Addressing such inequalities of access requires action. Of course, councils should do more to tackle outright fraud, but more radical change is needed. The Sutton Trust has long argued that school admissions in urban schools should use ballots (or random allocation) or banding to achieve a fairer intake. Of course, no politician wants to see a revolt by parents who can’t get their children into the school next door, so a pragmatic approach would be to mix places allocated by proximity with those allocated by ballots or banding, as Haberdashers Askes Academies in South London has done.

But opening up such schools is not enough on its own. That’s why, when I worked for Tony Blair, I helped introduce a new right of access – clauses 95 and 96 of the guidance – for pupils eligible for free school meals to free travel to a choice of three schools rather than the one designated by the local authority. These rights are very poorly publicised at the moment. It is also crucial that schools reach out to less advantaged parents, ensuring they are well informed about their options, particularly if they embrace more comprehensive admissions policies.

The enrichment shortfall demands action too. Successive governments have given schools extra money for their poorer pupils, and this Government has codified it and increased the sums available through the pupil premium, worth £900 a pupil this year and £1300 in primaries next year.

The enrichment shortfall demands action too. Successive governments have given schools extra money for their poorer pupils, and this Government has codified it and increased the sums available through the pupil premium, worth £900 a pupil this year and £1300 in primaries next year.

One sometimes forgotten aspect of the London Challenge – the programme that was key to the differential improvement  in London schools – was the London Student Pledge where pupils at the capital’s schools not only benefited from improved teaching and leadership, but they were also promised the chance to go to an artistic or sporting event at a major London venue and the chance to take part in a play and in a public event, all by age 16. Enrichment was part of the package and should be part of the pupil premium deal too.

Parent power has supposedly been around since league tables and Ofsted reports gave parents the right to pick a preferred school. But it has benefited some more than others. True parent power must be about providing fair access to good schools and to the enrichment activities that help to create successful adults.


Jules Offord, Our Path Education | 21 December 2013

These views are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of Our Path Education

The issues raised in ‘Parent Power for All’ highlight the importance of financial wealth in enabling choice in children’s education. In many ways this issue is compounded in rural and coastal areas by isolation. Whilst parental choice may be limited to the one local state school the ‘gap’ in the types of experiences that children bring with them to use in their learning is often very noticeable. Mobility of Professional parents to more rural areas has significantly increased over the past 20 to 30 years and this has led to further widening attainment gaps between rural rich and poor. The lack of the kinds of facilities available to more urban dwellers means that enrichment opportunities are often more scarce and only available to those children whose parents have wealth, available transport and sufficient time to drive them to larger towns or cities.
Rightly, the report raises the issue of the impact of middle class cultural capital in providing children with opportunities for educational enrichment. The support provided by professional parents becomes even more crucial when opportunity is scarce and parents often have to compete to get a place for their child in a club or with a tutor. There is often simply not space for all the children wanting to attend clubs or wanting additional tuition and professional parents often have ‘better connections’, enabling their child to secure the place. Living in smaller communities also often means that a narrower range of ‘school facing’ cultural experience is available in the first place. An additional factor that needs to be taken into account is that personal interests and experiences gained in rural and coastal communities may also be less visible in the school curriculum. For all children from poorer backgrounds (rural, coastal and urban) the curriculum mostly reflects the experiences of other lives and this factor simply compounds their disadvantage and provides further barriers to their academic success.
For many less advantaged rural and coastal children the poverty of opportunity is similar to that found in the most deprived housing estates of our larger cities. Like their city counterparts these children may never go to the nearest town, visit a theatre or museum. Their opportunity to experience enriched learning in their own school may be further limited by its size and the need for children to travel by the transport provided to enable them to get to and from it. Although schools and teachers try hard it is not always possible to offer the wide range of experiences that children would like.
For many less affluent rural and coastal learners there can also be a lack of aspiration bought about by this limited opportunity for enrichment and by living in families who have work in the same occupation for several generations. This often provides them with a similar vision for their future. In many small rural schools children from less wealthy families are often in a significant minority. They can appear invisible and simply seen as less able when in truth their lack of opportunity and the chance to enrich their school experience denies them full access to the curriculum and learning environment. For many of these children they simply may not be able to show what they can achieve.
Evidence produced on behalf of National Rural Network for Gifted and Talented Education in 2009 suggests that the education attainment gap between free and non-free school meals children is often greater in rural and coastal areas than it is in urban conurbations. However, because of the statistically small proportion of children identified as disadvantaged in rural and coastal areas these children’s disadvantage often remains unrecognised, their needs are often not effectively addressed and they become frustrated and disenchanted with their learning experience.
The focus on ‘Parent Power’ is important in understanding the advantages that some parents are able to gain for their children. However because the report does not consider the difference of impact in rural and urban communities there is little recognition of the impact this has on the group that can be described as rurally poor disadvantaged children. Without a greater understanding of the complexity of the challenges these children face we will continue to fail to put in place strategies that will improve their school and wider learning experiences.

2017-08-09T16:32:18+00:00 December 18th, 2013|Categories: Blog|