Unequal parental choice

marketisation policies mean unequal parental choice as middle class parents have more cultural capital

Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1) examined the effects that marketisation policies which introduced competition and parental choice were having on the education system and on the opportunities for different social groups.

They found that middle class parents had more effective choice of schools because of their higher levels of cultural, social and material capital.

Researching parental choice

They studied 15 schools in neighbouring LEAs in England between 1994 and 1991 using a range of research methods including visiting the schools, attending meetings, interviewing teachers and parents and examining documents.

Central to the research study was a series of interviews with 150 parents whose children were in the final year of primary school, and so were in the process of choosing secondary schools. Some areas had mainly middle class populations, some mainly working class and some had significant ethnic minority populations, so the researchers were able to compare parental choice across these groups.

Marketisation: the effects on schools

The overall effect was a shift in the value framework of schools from comprehensive to market values.

The publication of league tables meant that schools were more keen to attract those more able students who could boost their position in the league tables. There was more of a focus on what prospective students could do for the school rather than what the school could do for the students.

Some schools had introduced setting and streaming so as to more effectively focus resources on those students who were judged likely to succeed and some schools had started to view students like commodities.

Schools were also putting more resources into marketing to promote a positive image of the school: producing glossy brochures to attract parents and staff were expected to spend more time on marketing activities, mainly opening days and evenings.

Neighbouring schools had stopped co-operating with each other and there was a new attitude of suspicion and hostility in some cases.

Schools lower down the league tables were more obsessed with trying to attract pupils, while the more successful schools were able to be more complacent and selective with the students they chose.

Budgetary concerns such as cutting costs were becoming more important than educational and social issues.

Marketisation and unequal parental choice

Gewirtz et al argued that not all parents had equal choice of schools. The amount of choice was limited by the availability of schools in the local area and the capacity of parents to make informed choices.

They identified three types of parents based on their ability to choose:

  • Privileged or skilled choosers
  • Semi-skilled choosers
  • Disconnected choosers

Skilled choosers

Skilled choosers were strongly motivated to put energy into choosing the ‘right’ school for their child and had the ability to make an informed choice.

Skilled choosers are mainly middle class and some had inside knowledge of the school system, such as those who were teachers themselves and tended to choose the most successful schools for their children.

They had both the knowledge to evaluate schools and the money to be able to move to into the catchment area of a particular school they wanted their child to go to.

Semi-skilled choosers

Semi-skilled choosers have a strong motivation to choose by limited capacity to engage with the market. They are less likely to be middle class than skilled-choosers.

They have just a strong a desire to get their children into the best schools but lack the cultural skills and social contacts to be able to make their choices stick.

For example semi-skilled choosers feel less at home at parents evening, less comfortable asking difficult questions and and are less likely to appeal if they don’t get their first choice of school.

As a result this group are more likely to settle for their child just going to a local school rather than a better school that they originally wanted.

Disconnected choosers

Disconnected choosers are just as concerned with their children’s education and welfare but don’t get involved with the school-choice market because they don’t believe it will benefit their children as they think there is little difference between schools.

They tend to consider a smaller number of school options, typically only the two nearest schools to where they live, and their child typically ends up going to one of these local schools which is unlikely to be the best academically.

Disconnected choosers are more concerned with their child’s happiness than them going to a school with a good academic record, and so sending them to a local school where their friends are also going makes sense.

Disconnected choosers are typically working class and the most likely group to send their children to undersubscribed, underperforming schools.

definitions of skilled, semi-skilled and disconnected choosers

Cultural and material capital and differential choice

Marketisation policies have made education less equal. Middle class parents are in a better position than working class parents to send their children to a school of their choice.

Because middle class parents have more cultural and social capital they are more able to play the system effectively:

  • they can make a better impression with the head teacher at open day.
  • they are more likely to make private appointments to discuss school choice.
  • they are more likely to appeal if they are not successful in their application.
  • In some cases they are more likely to actually know staff at the school.
  • They have more time and money to research and visit schools.

They also have more money which can help with:

  • moving into the catchment areas of the best schools.
  • Extra tuition to get their children into grammar schools.
  • Paying for transport or driving their children to schools which may be several miles away.

In contrast working class parents were more likely to want their children to go to local schools because then they didn’t have to make long and dangerous journeys (which maybe expensive) and they had access to their local community which was a support network.

In Bourdieu’s terms both middle class and working class parents made school choices based on their habitus, or their different lived experiences. And this meant the middle classes having free choice over a wide area, and the working classes simply choosing to stay local, which effectively meant no real choice at all!


This material is relevant to the sociology of education topic, it is especially relevant to demonstrating how social and cultural capital give the middle classes an advantage in education.


(1) Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1994) Parents, privilege and the education market‐place

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.