Report Overview

In 2013 the Sutton Trust published Parent Power?a landmark piece of work authored by Prof Becky Francis and Prof Merryn Hutchings demonstrating how social class influences parents’ ability to support their children in their schooling. Five years later Parent Power 2018 revisits the cultural and financial resources parents use to boost their children’s chances of educational success.

Based on a survey conducted by YouGov, the Sutton Trust’s Rebecca Montacute and Carl Cullinane find similar trends to those found in 2013. From choosing the best school to attend, to paying for out of school extracurricular activities, better-off parents continue to have the upper hand when it comes to navigating the education system and preventing their children from falling behind in school.

The report also reveals new challenges. The ‘hidden costs’ of education such as uniforms and travel expenses are an increasing concern for parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, while schools are demonstrating increasing reliance on extra financial contributions from parents following recent school budget cuts.


Nearly three in five working-class parents say ‘hidden costs’ affect where they send their children to school.


A third of parents know someone who has used ethically dubious strategies to gain a school place.


A fifth of parents know about Progress 8, the Department for Education’s headline measure for school league tables.

Key Findings
  • When choosing what school to send their child to, parents with higher socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to attend open days, read Ofsted reports, speak to parents at the school, read league tables and consult local authority or other education websites.
  • Parents in lower socioeconomic groups were more likely to indicate that the cost of travel, and potential extra financial costs such as uniforms, played a significant role in their decision making. Over half of working class parents (56%), compared to 34% of professional parents.
  • Just one in five parents (20%) reported that they were familiar with Progress 8, the Department for Education’s new headline measure for school league tables.
  • Parents in higher socioeconomic groups were much more likely to report a variety of strategies to gain access to their preferred school, such as moving to an area with good schools or to a specific catchment, along with employing private tutors for entrance tests.
  • Almost 1 in 3 (30%) of parents from higher socioeconomic backgrounds personally knew a parent who used ethically dubious 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.
  • Parents from higher socioeconomic backgrounds were five times more likely to report that their children had received private tuition. 31% of professional parents, compared to 6% of working class parents.
  • Two in five (39%) of school leaders say that extra financial contributions requested by their school have increased in the last two years. This is reflected in the views of parents, with half of parents (49%) say their school has asked them for an extra financial contribution in the last twelve months. 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, with higher class parents more likely to report they had been asked for contributions.
  • Young people from professional households were more likely to take part in extracurricular activities. This reflects cultural capital, but also financial resources in the home, as those in lower social groups were more likely to take part in activities that didn’t need to be paid for, 25% of working class parents, compared to 20% of professional parents.

Recommendations for schools

  1. Schools should give pupil premium students priority in school applications when places are oversubscribed. The current Schools Admissions Code currently allows for the use pf pupil premium status as an oversubscription criterion, so more schools, particularly high performing schools, should move to implement this in order to create a more socially balanced intake and better reflect their local communities.
  2. More schools, particularly in urban areas, should take the opportunity where they are responsible for their own admissions to introduce random allocation ballots to ensure that a wider mix of pupils has access to the most academically successful comprehensives. Reducing the emphasis on geographical proximity will allow fairer access to the best schools and limit socially divisive incentives for house buying and gaming the system. Ballots should be introduced alongside large catchment areas in order to maximise the potential socioeconomic diversity of the catchment.
  3. Schools should establish ‘homework clubs’. Disadvantaged students should have additional encouragement and support to enable them to engage in self-directed study and do sufficient homework. Schools should provide such opportunities where they are unlikely to be available at home, such as through the provision of homework clubs. It is crucial however that such clubs have an academic focus and are taken by good teachers in order to be effective.
  4. Schools should support parental engagement in their child’s education. To support the home learning environment, schools should take a ‘whole school’ approach to communicating with and involving parents actively through partnership. In particular, this should be supported by a key member of staff, and involve use of innovations in digital technology where possible to increase engagement with parents.
  5. Schools should seek to ensure diversity in the representation of parents in school structures. All schools should seek to have a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) with a wide range of parents represented – and to be as open as possible for parents to raise concerns in more informal settings, for example with regular coffee mornings.

Recommendations for policymakers

  1. Schools should be well resourced through the new national funding formula. Funding should reflect the challenges faced by schools with large proportions of disadvantaged pupils and located in areas of high deprivation, such schools should not lose out in any changes to the funding system. It also should be ensured that pupil premium funding is correctly targeted at the students who need it most and is used on evidence-based programmes, rather than schools needing to plug gaps in operational budgets.
  2. Implement a means-tested voucher scheme for tuition and enrichment. The government should introduce a means-tested voucher system, funded through the Pupil premium, enabling lower income families to purchase additional educational support. Through this, lower income families could access additional support and enrichment, including extra-curricular activities and one-to-one tuition. Limited trials of such voucher schemes have shown them to be successful. Tutors should be experienced and well qualified.
  3. The Government should improve the range and quality of information available to working class parents. The Government should find ways, working with community groups, consumer agencies and businesses that are successful in working class communities – to make it easier for all parents to access as rich a range of information to facilitate informed choice-making over their children’s education, including through digital innovation.
  4. It is particularly important that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but 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) if their child is eligible for Free School Meals.
  5. All pupils should receive a guaranteed level of careers advice from professional impartial advisers. For those facing disadvantage – or who are at risk of not reaching their potential – there should be further support available. Staff training should ensure that key messages are consistent and based on up to date guidelines. The Careers and Enterprise Company should also be resourced and encouraged to trial and identify what works in careers advice for disadvantaged pupils in particular.
  6. A UCAS-style portal should be set up for apprenticeship admissions. The lack of first-hand experience of teachers and parents make availability of independent information on apprenticeships all the more important. But current information on apprenticeship availability is inconsistent and scattered. A centralised portal where young people could find information about, and apply to, apprenticeships, similar to the UCAS system for university, could be a step-change in the sector.