University of Roehampton
In Britain neo-liberal education policies have driven ‘parental involvement’ behaviours beyond merely checking the children’s homework or hearing them read. Parents have become essential to the operationalization of the education market. Parents have been induced or seduced to engage in the choice processes for their children’s schools. Parents now expect to have a choice of school for their child and have a right to meaningful involvement in their child’s school. They have been led to believe that these actions will enhance their child’s educational experience. However, for many parents, particularly from working class and Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds such expectations are frequently thwarted and in many instances parents find that if they want to send their child to their local primary school or the secondary school that seemingly has an excellent academic record for example, there are insufficient places.
Engaging with the educational market whether it is at the level of school choice or supporting their child’s academic progress requires both knowledge of the education system, how the market operates and what exactly is involved in the educational process that would support their child. Social class and ethnicity are highly significant in parent-school engagement. Both of these social identities ensure that school relationships and levels of involvement are experienced differently and differentially.
School choice, calling teachers to account, having a voice in the management of the school (through for example representation on the school governing body) are rights or expectations directed at the white middle-class parents. Whilst Black and ethnic minority and white working-class parents might want to engage with the school in these ways too, we know from abundant research that these groups tend not to have the cultural capital of educational knowledge or the requisite social capital to do so; they are less likely to be able to make significant school choices or to compete for a place of their choice. Nor do they have the wealth to move house if they wanted to relocate to an area where a more desirable school was located.
Educational underachievement of Black and minority ethnic children as well as the white working-class is an on-going concern in England. School choice policy and more recently the expansion of the Academies and the introduction of Free Schools, are proffered as mechanisms for ensuring the best possible opportunities for their child and eschewing such failure. The emerging Black and minority ethnic middle-classes in England, not surprisingly therefore, have been found to engage, in similar ways to their white counterparts, with the educational market in order to ensure educational success for their children. Research demonstrates however that in spite of social mobility, racism continues to impede these ethnic groups either in terms of gaining a place for their child at their desired school; or in terms of having their voice heard by the school when questioning teachers’ practice or the way their child has been treated. Free schools are in fact taking only half of the proportion of disadvantaged pupils compared to State Schools. Free Schools are not empowering working class families as the Coalition Government claims. The Free School catchment areas are skewed towards the middle classes and the working classes are underrepresented.
By contrast Free Schools and Academies do seem to offer a meal ticket to the middle classes in that independent/private schools are “queuing up to become free” whilst maintaining their former mission statements and values but now alleviating substantial payments by the parents. As for having a voice in their children’s education through the school governing body, recent research by Wilkins would suggest that most parents unless they have the skills of an accountant, lawyer or representing the business community are not represented on these bodies.
The term ‘hard to reach’ is a phrase usually reserved for parents deemed to inhabit the margins of school, or society as a whole who are socially excluded and who, seemingly, need to be ‘brought in’ and re-engaged as stake-holders (e.g. the ‘Troubled Families’ Programme). My research on South Asian families and schools, clearly showed that it was the schools that were very difficult for parents to become engaged with. The intensification of competition between schools and parents for places will do nothing to address these injustices.
Although research demonstrates that the middle classes are generally not utilising their privileged positions for the common good, there is a small minority who are. These glimmers of possibility need to be harnessed and utilised as in for example the Finnish experience of local organisation and the development of Communities of Practice and Vincent’s parent centred organisations where parents could meet and generate networks of change.