School choices are limited for working class children

March 13, 2002

According to new research released during National Science Week 2002*, secondary school choice has become a marker of economic privilege with many white and ethnic minority working class children finding their choices limited. The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also shows that the education 'market' has become polarised with some local schools being 'demonised' or 'idealised' to the detriment of local children. 'It also shows the direct links between children's internal, emotional realities and social and structural realities in the way that these local secondary schools markets have been constructed. It makes it extremely painful for those children who have to attend these 'demonised' schools' says Dr Diane Reay co - author of the research with Helen Lucey.

The research, undertaken at the Department of Education and Professional Studies at King's College London showed that working class children tend to opt for education 'choices' which are rooted in family background, local community and life histories whereas middle class families employ a variety of strategies to ensure advantage in their choice of schools. 'Those strategies included home tutoring as preparation for selective school entrance exams, making risky applications to schools which were further away and buying properties in the catchment areas of high performing comprehensives' says Dr Reay.

Race and patterns of immigration also play an important part in how some secondary schools are demonised. 'Particularly complex is the intersection of race with social class for aspirational black and Asian families. Many of these families were all too aware of a 'hierarchy' of schools in terms of desirability which was inherently connected with being respectable and white' says Dr Reay. 'There was also evidence that many ethnic minority children choose to go to a school where there were enough black and ethnic minority children for them not to stand out' she adds.

'We wanted to give the children involved in the research a collective voice so that we could discover just how involved they really are in the processes of secondary school choice. We found they were crucial, both as family members with access to adult conversations and as part of influential peer groups with their own dialogues' says Dr Reay. 'The results challenge simplistic notions of academic success and excellence as embodied in current educational policy and initiatives revealing the emotional costs for both those children who are pushed towards high performance and those who are 'average' or 'failing' educationally' says Dr Reay.

'Raising 'aspirations' amongst inner city communities is a stated education policy objective. We need to see how this can be achieved when we found high aspirations amongst many working class, black and ethnic children alongside structural impediments' says Dr Reay. 'We need to look too at the processes of the racialisation of secondary school choice in the inner city since this research demonstrated that black, ethnic and refugee children fare worst in their secondary school choice' she adds.

Economic & Social Research Council

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