Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Conway, S. (1997) 'The Reproduction of Exclusion and Disadvantage: Symbolic Violence and Social Class Inequalities in "Parental Choice" of Secondary Education'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 4, <>

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Received: 20/11/97      Accepted: 5/12/97      Published: 22/12/97


Following the enhancement of parental choice through the 1988 Education Act, an increasing body of educational literature, aside from describing parent wants and the implications for internal organisation and external marketing, includes criticism of it as yet another way of privileging the middle class over the working class (eg. Halstead, 1994). This paper argues that parental choice is a social field where social relations are reproduced, reinforced and mediated. As such, it is an important area for sociological study which, to date, has been neglected. Drawing on some preliminary analysis of a research study, this paper critically examines the merits of using the work of Pierre Bourdieu to facilitate a sociological analysis of parental choice. The paper concludes that parental choice is a new aspect of social reproduction that clearly demonstrates Bourdieu's explanation of the interrelation between 'habitus' and social 'field'.

Consumerism; Educational Marketplace; Ideology of Parentocracy; Parental Choice of Secondary Education; Social Class Inequalities; Social Reproduction; Symbolic Violence


This paper argues that parental choice of secondary education is a social 'field' which, by reproducing, reinforcing and mediating social relations, helps to strengthen the advantage of the middle classes over the working class. In sociological terms, Bourdieu's concept of the 'field' is attractive because it captures the relational characteristics of social divisions and thus provides a flexible theoretical tool. In Bourdieu's words:

I define a field as a network, or configuration, of objective relations between positions objectively defined, in their existence and in the determinations they impose upon occupants, agents or institutions, by their present and potential situations (situs) in the structure of the distribution of species of power (or capital) where possession commands access to the specific profits that are at stake in the field, as well as by their objective relations to other positions (domination, subordination, homology, etc.). Each field presupposes, and generates by its very functioning, the belief in the stakes it offers. (Bourdieu quoted in Gewirtz et al, 1995: p. 23)

The use of the term field here, then, refers to a formative or framing context that helps to produce distinctive forms of social action, shaped by social class, when choosing a school. In many ways, this interpretation parallels the classical materialist position on culture, as a field can be regarded as a microcosm of the wider social order wherein ways of thinking, talking and acting, and so on, are 'the direct product of an order primarily constituted by other social activities' (Williams, 1981: p. 12).

To be sure, the growth of parental choice is indicative of rapid social change in Western societies. In particular, choice is an outcome of the 'privatisation' of social resources-in this case education- through the emphasis upon consumerism. In The Parent's Charter, introduced by the Conservative government, for example, the idea that choice systems discriminate against the working class is ignored. Instead, an even playing field is assumed. Parents are counselled on their 'duty' to consume education and take responsibility for their child's future. Education is de-politicised at the stroke of a pen; what matters most is responsible consumerism: 'You have a duty to ensure that your child gets an education - and you can chose the school that you would like your child to go to. Your choice is wider as a result of recent changes' (The Parents Charter, cited in Gewirtz et al, 1995: p. 21). Following writers like Bauman (1992), one could argue that consumerism represents a more subtle form of social control for those without the ability to pay. Thus new buzzwords like 'choice', 'freedom', 'standards' and 'excellence' are denied to those who are socially and economically disadvantaged. This denial is being obscured by what Brown (1994) describes as the 'ideology of parentocracy', which also provides further enclaves and opportunities for the pursuit of social distinction amongst the middle classes. For Brown, three ideologies or 'waves' underpin the socio-historical development of British education. The first consisted of the rise of mass education in the late nineteenth century. The 'second wave' involved a shift towards individual merit and achievement or 'meritocracy'. The 'third wave' involves a shift from child to parent centred education within an 'ideology of parentocracy'. As Brown describes it, '...a system whereby the education a child receives must conform to the wealth and wishes of the parents rather than the abilities and efforts of pupils.'

The key point here, then, is that the ideology of parentocracy is a symbolic manifestation which serves to mask the production and reproduction of structured social inequalities; that is, it symbolises choice, and therefore obscures the lack of choice of the disadvantaged because of their lack of economic and conceptual abilities to play the game of choice. In reality, the idea of discerning consumers operating within an ideology of parentocracy represents a kind of 'informing spirit' of a distinctive way of life of more privileged social groups. In the extreme, this lifestyle is most evident in the consumption of, and 'taste' for, specific cultural products such as paintings, sculptures, the theatre, cinema and so on and most fundamentally, knowledge. Thus bourgeois cultural producers such as artists, advertisers, playwrights, priests, accountants, teachers and computer scientists, and those with inherited social and economic capital, are clearly advantaged as practising and accomplished consumers in such an ideological framework. Put simply, choosing a school discriminates against the working class to the advantage of the middle classes because of class related inequalities in power and conceptual knowledge (Goldring, 1997; Ball et al, 1995; Gewirtz et al, 1995). Market orientated choice has political functions in that it deflects 'consumers' away from the idea of government responsibility (Smith & Meier, 1993). Indeed, as well as disadvantaging the working class, market driven choice can also discriminate against other aspects of social difference such as 'disability' and gender (eg. see Evans and Vincent, 1997; David et al, 1994). The purpose of this paper, then, is to deconstruct the way parental choice represents a space for the expression of symbolic power and consequent violence against those who do not have the social, economic and cultural resources to take advantage of it as a mechanism for the take up of educational resources.

Following the critique of writers like Bowe et al (1994), Ball et al (1995) and Gewirtz et al (1995), the analysis adopted here seeks to avoid the 'artefact' approach of 'sociologically and politically naive' methodologies of 'market driven' research into parental choice. The tendency in such research is to simply list parent criteria, gained typically from multiple response type questionnaires without recourse to social and political context. Such approaches neglect the social shaping of parent meaning or conceptual frameworks when it comes to 'choosing' a school. Bourdieu's whole project, it could be argued, represents an apt and exemplary critical model on which to base such an analysis. It has been described as a kind of political economy of symbolic violence, depicting the imposition of a reality that is shaped by instruments of knowledge that are economically and politically located. Wacquant describes Bourdieu's work thus:

Bourdieu's entire oeuvre may be read as a quest to explicate the specificity and potency of symbolic power, that is, the capacity that systems of meaning and signification have of shielding and thereby strengthening, relations of oppression and exploitation by hiding them under the cloak of nature, benevolence and meritocracy. (Wacquant, 1993: pp. 1 - 2)

With some notable exceptions (eg, see Brown on higher education and Ball et al's study of parental choice cited in Byrne and Rogers, 1996; Gewirtz et al, 1995, chapter 2 on choice and class; Goldring, 1997, on parental choice and class based 'creaming'; Heath and Clifford, 1996, on social class and education), very little recent attention has been given to the lifechance effects of education. The reasons for this are not simple to understand but they could be posited as being primarily twofold.

First, something along the lines of 'We have said it all before, social class inequalities in education are nothing new to sociology' seems appropriate. Byrne and Rogers eloquently hint along these lines by suggesting the implementation of comprehensive secondary education signalled the success of the early pioneers:

It seems as if the nomothetic radical programme of earlier sociologists interested in the relationship between educational access and inequality was considered to have been completed by the general implementation of comprehensive ... education... . (Byrne and Rogers, 1996: ¶1.2)

The continuation of selective education (particularly private education, and clear statistical evidence that social class often determines the type of secondary education available, with no indication of any changes in this relationship from the beginning of this century (see Heath and Clifford, 1996)), shows that ignoring social class inequalities is myopic and vacuous. Indeed, this is indicative of de-contextualised educational reform that sought to increase working class access but ignored the structural disadvantages that the education system could not possibly compensate for on its own.

Second, following the rise of excessively post, postmodern theory, where in the interests of theory development some sociologists could be accused of accelerating into a Baudrillardian void of their own making, realities such as social class inequalities in education have been left behind. Thus the material realities that dominate the everyday lives of individuals in society and which brought about the emergence of the discipline of sociology in the first instance, are being neglected. Whilst talking about social class inequalities, per se, may not necessarily be considered as original, they are, nevertheless, an important area. The relationships between disadvantage, exclusion, and social class are clearly identified throughout the history of the discipline of sociology. The point is, then, that it does not seem unreasonable to argue that social class inequalities are entrenched throughout the fabric of the social world and this needs to be communicated by socio-logists.

In addition to Bourdieu's concept of the social field, his explanation of the 'habitus' is drawn upon here as it links the ideational and material disposition of the agent or 'modus operandi' with the context of economic and political forces or 'modus operatum' (Bourdieu, 1977; 1986; 1990). For Bourdieu, there is a two way relationship between habitus and field, that is, they are mutually constitutive. The habitus does this by defining the perception of the field. The field, by the fact that it is a 'structured space', structures the habitus. As he puts it:

... there is a two way relationship between habitus and field, where the field as a structured space, tends to structure the habitus, while the habitus tends to structure the perception of the field. (Bourdieu, 1988: p. 784)

Put simply, the habitus is a set of dispositions and classificatory principles which distinguish the taste of one group from another (Bocock and Thompson, 1992: p. 146). For Bourdieu (1977: p. 487), the habitus has a clear role in 'the transmission of power and privileges.' It is a '... system of dispositions which acts as a mediation between structures and practice.' The crucial argument of Bourdieu is that the habitus (and habitus/field interrelation) is pivotal in the process of social reproduction. For Bourdieu, the habitus endows agents with 'predispositions' which allow 'continuity of practices' which match the structures and, therefore, allow their reproduction. The practical necessity of consuming what now has become a cultural good, that is, education, allows the expression of habitus based preferences or tastes which allow for the reproduction of social groups as a whole. Thus, for Bourdieu, taste distinguishes social group membership and distinction. Tastes demonstrate the advantage for the privileged of being able to draw on greater volumes of social, economic and cultural capital, and, as he so often puts it, 'play the game.' Taste, therefore,

... is the basis of all that one has-people and things-and all that one is for others, whereby one classifies oneself and is classified by others. Tastes (ie, manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes. ... Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different life-styles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between the classes; class endogamy is evidence of this. The most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as possessors of legitimate culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated. This means that the games of artists and aesthetes and their struggles for the monopoly of artistic legitimacy are less innocent than they seem. (abridged from Bourdieu, 1986: pp. 56 - 7)

The research discussed here indicates two things for the more socially, culturally and economically disadvantaged parent. First, they are less likely or able to demonstrate a taste for schools other than local ones. Second, they are more likely to have low or no skills in engaging with parental choice, nor are they very conscious of the habitus/field interlink.

One consequence of rapid social change this century that has attracted considerable attention is the growth of the service class. In this general argument social strata is seen to have moved away from a pyramid to a more bell shaped form. The members of the expanded service class seek to convert social and economic capital into cultural capital as a means of gaining social distinction and thereby reproducing the class as a whole (Bourdieu, 1986). This shift towards the display of status in social groups lower down the social strata can be traced back to Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). By looking at the early period of mass consumption in America, Veblen depicted how the dominant classes maintained, achieved and displayed their status via the processes of emulation and 'conspicuous consumption'. Veblen's book was an early, if somewhat rough and ready, theory of hegemony (Edgell, 1987).

In the context of education, a move from the 'ideology of meritocracy' to that of 'parentocracy' was, and is, reflected in the proliferation of credentials in the education system. Credentials serve the needs of the service sector which depend on them. However, their concomitant devaluation as a means of social closure favours the more socially, economically and culturally advantaged. This work on 'credentialism' can be traced back to Weber's argument in Economy and Society (1979). For Weber, educational credentials were replacing inherited social power in a rational-legal sense. This thesis was developed further by sociologists of education and finds clear expression in Collins' The Credential Society (1979). For Collins, the demands to regulate the curriculum reflect the desire to restrict the supply of candidates, resulting in credential inflation. This system, he argues, favours the economically advantaged.

The Research

The paper draws on data from a multi-method study which involved year 6 parents engaged in the process of choosing a school, year 7 parents who had already made the choice, primary headteachers in feeder schools, the headteacher and all year 7 students from Saint James' Comprehensive (NB: All names of people, places and schools have been changed). The project was carried out on the behalf of St. James' as a piece of consultancy. The school, which had a good general reputation and above national average GCSE results, commissioned the research to identify the main reasons why it had suffered a recent attrition in demand and to develop a marketing strategy accordingly.

Data collection took place between late 1996 and early 1997 and involved questionnaire surveys and interviews. In the main, interviews were more semi-structured for parents and, given the sensitivity of the issue, more loosely structured for headteachers. The paper uses a sub-set of data from interviews with St. James' headteacher, 7 interviews with headteachers in feeder primary schools, 3 interviews with year 6 parents giving St. James' as first choice on parental choice forms, 9 interviews and a focus group discussion (involving 4 different people) with St. James' year 7 parents. Apart from the research report, this is the first piece of broader research dissemination. Presented out of context, the data presented here cannot possibly capture the richness of experiential knowledge which the parents drew upon to inform their choice. However, it does serve the purpose of indicating how social class shapes choice, particularly to the advantage of the middle classes in the educational marketplace. Given the scope of the data, the focus is on the qualitative material because of the depth it offers. The quantitative material will be used elsewhere.

The Marketplace

In general terms, two types of secondary school were available to local parents, non-selective and selective. Most of the comprehensives were non-selective in that pupils were not screened for ability. However, some of the over-subscribed, grant maintained schools could employ parent and student interviews, as well as application forms as part of a selection procedure. Interestingly, a recent study by Mayet (1997), found a 'patchwork of admissions procedures', particularly in over-subscribed, grant-maintained schools, which seemed to indicate 'covert selection'. The selective schools referred to in this study mostly consisted of private, fee-paying schools and grammar schools. In addition, there was also a City Technology College which was heavily oversubscribed. In recruitment to the CTC there was evidence of 'covert selection' or 'new' credentialism if pupils did not show an aptitude for new technology on their application form.

Some of our parents have been refused admission to the City Technology College because they did not show an aptitude for technology on the application form. (Mrs HB, Primary Head)

Where middle class parents had chosen St. James', this was often on the clear proviso that they would remove their children if educational standards were poor. Most of these parents were clearly conscious of the habitus/field link, albeit without using the terminology, and the effect of this on their child's long term lifechances.

Mr. R: ...even if she had her heart set on going to St. James' and we were not very happy with the school, I doubt very much whether she would have gone there. ...

In the next quotation a 'discipline problem' is symbolised as an 'inner city' manifestation. The implication being that class orientation (part of the habitus) is transmitted in the culture and organisation of the school (social field).

Mr. B: ...She (teacher) gave a lot reassurances about... You know, bullying, conduct, and discipline - normal discipline and respect. Mutual respect between the kids, which I think is very (repeats) very important. If there was a discipline problem in this school or the school to which my child was going, if I knew there were real problems, such as they get in inner cities, I would not put my child in there. I would then look at selectiveness. ...although I prefer the principle of comprehensive education, I think it is important that your own child and their future and their development comes first. If they go into an environment where they cannot learn, I would not do it just on principle.

Another interesting dimension, in terms of middle class parents choosing a non-selective school, was that for some their choice was really a corrective measure because their children were not up to scratch, academically or behaviourally.

Researcher: Did you say that you had an older child at one of the other schools?

Mrs. R: Yes, but they are very different children and what school suits one child does not always suit another . And we honestly thought Rebecca would struggle, where her sister is (the City Technology College)- because Claire is quite intelligent and she enjoys it, doesn't she? But it is hard there. I know the curriculum is the same. But it is hard what Claire does, isn't it? ... We had to think of Rebecca. And we feel that we have made an excellent choice.

Mr. A: Yes, Comprehensive, the statistics looked good for the top end of the achievers and, in my son's case, the headmaster recommended it (St. James') as well.

Researcher: From the primary school?

Mr. A: Yes, from the primary school; although I don't think he is supposed to do that, technically. ... he gets disruptive when he's bored. He is very articulate. His reading age was minus a couple when he was eight and it is now plus one or two. So that side... He is quite good at that, and he thinks he is an adult. Anyway, so he will sit and argue with anybody, including me. Thus he isn't the easiest child to handle but I think that's when he...That is why I didn't want the statement taken away because the problem is starting - if you can't start right then I think it's going to be difficult for him because he would be way behind and always trying to catch up. And I think we might have lost a bit of ground, but that's not the school's fault. But academically at this stage I don't know, because my daughter only recently joined as we pulled her out of the private sector. Yes, she didn't want to go to boarding school and so we brought her in here at thirteen but she could have gone to the grammar school but she, for reasons that my colleagues here have said (he is taking part in a focus group discussion), she is weak at a fundamental subject like math's but she's very strong at English. And she felt herself that in a grammar school environment she'd be struggling all the time and she didn't feel she wanted to go through that.

Researcher: So she could be streamed for each subject individually.

Mr. A: Yes, but interestingly she's in the top stream for math's, which was her weak subject.

They have not really had very many strong pupils from us. I mean, the reason many parents will send them to St. James' is if they have not particularly got on very well with children in our school because they might use that as an opportunity to give them a clean start. ...we had one child went to St. James' last year and I know the parents sent her because she had not got on particularly well with children here, and it was an opportunity to give her a fresh start. ...she was not an academic child by any stretch of the imagination... (Mr YE Primary Head)

The point is that different social groups are likely to engage with the market in different ways, based on different values, knowledge and beliefs. They are using what Bourdieu terms as 'objective possibilities' to inform their decision. Choice here is based on matching the needs of the child to what schools could offer. The middle class parent transferred his daughter from a private school to St. James' to, as it were, pull her up to scratch. In addition, the primary head notes how some of his parents of children with behavioural difficulties send their children to St. James'.

On the other hand, working class parents rarely chose selective education for their children, even though there could sometimes be tacit acknowledgement that this would improve their children's lifechances. When they had thought about it, the idea was often rejected because of cost, distance and/or it was simply not really within their social horizons.

Mr. D: South Davidson, the Science and Tech. and St. James'. I think there was one other, but I can't think what it was...Oh we were thinking about sending him down to boarding school, but on day release not actually staying there, you know I take him and then pick him up and bring him home.

Researcher: Where would that be?

Mr. D: Wingprayer. But we decided against that because of the travelling. We'd have to pick him up and drop him off there.

Researcher: So you didn't consider sending him to the grammar school at Wingprayer then?

Mr. D: I thought about it because I was thinking about sending them to a grammar school. But I look at it like this, if they're good then they'll do all right wherever they go, I think. Fair enough, it does depend a lot on the teachers and the facilities they've got. ... I suppose it is a bit of help if they go to grammar school. But he's a hard worker. He is as far as school work goes. I don't know where he gets it from, it must be his mother, I think. He likes to do his work.

This view, then, demonstrates a semi-conscious awareness of the habitus/field link. In many ways this parallels the typology of 'semi-skilled choosers' described by Gewirtz et al (1995), where such parents talk of potential schools as outsiders, relying on second hand information, having a ' ... strong inclination, but limited capacity to engage effectively with the market: their cultural capital is in the wrong currency and they are less able to accumulate the right sort' (Gewirtz et al, 1995: p. 40).

Another striking social class effect involved in choosing a school was shown in the multiplicity of tactics and strategies used by middle class parents compared to working class parents. Put another way, the middle class parents showed a skilful 'feel for the game'. Much like Gewirtz et al's (1995) 'privileged/skilled choosers' such parents showed a strong capacity 'to engage with and utilise the possibilities of choice' (Gewirtz et al, 1995: p. 25). Many middle class parents who wanted their children to go to a grammar school, for example, would give this as second choice. Naming the grammar as second choice was done in the knowledge that places were likely to be more scarce in some of the more popular non-selective schools. Therefore the grammar was 'second choice', just in case their children failed the eleven plus.

Mr. I: ... The only thing what I don't like about the system here is that you go round these schools, like St. James' for instance, if you put that down as your number one choice the rest don't accept you straight away. The number two choice maybe will accept you, but it depends upon how many they get on the first intake. ... We put St. James' down for the first and Queen Elizabeth's second.

Researcher: So if she did pass her eleven plus, and wanted to go to Queen Elizabeth's, would she get in? Or is it a risk you take?

Mr. I: If she passes the eleven plus then they should offer her a place.

Researcher: Oh right, it's probably the best way to go then, isn't it?

Mr. I: Yes, a friend of mine who teaches at St. James' primary, their daughter went there, I think it was last year, and they did the same.

Researcher: Oh right, someone else you know had done it and it worked out all right.

Mr. I: Yes, it doesn't seem quite right. If she does pass it I would like to say she would go to King George's Grammar anyway.

The association between class and school or habitus and social field was often acknowledged and, more importantly, reproduced by some of the primary heads. For example, parents were cautioned about isolating children by sending them to selective schools. In the following extract, social, cultural and economic capital, and distance are identified as important in matching a child to a school.

...They (parents) come in and they say, 'What would you recommend?' ... I do say that if a child is going for the eleven plus then they have to realise the social implications of their child going to the Grammar school in Wingprayer. It is nothing to do with the school, it's simply the physical fact of there child having to travel there and travel back, being isolated from school friends in the village here, because there may be only one other child going to the school, who they may not get on with although it happens most parties tend to get on anyway. There tends to be the odd child, and if they have made friends from the other side of Wingprayer, the Slatewell side of Wingprayer, to go and visit that friend means travelling 25 or 30 miles. There has been cases of children who have gone to the Grammar school and have actually not settled and have come back to St. James', because they can't cope with the travelling or what have you. And, of course, it is a considerable tie and expense. They have to weigh up those factors. ... (Mr. ER, Primary Head)

In the following extract, the primary head pays lip service to the merits of going to the local school (St. James' which is immediately next door!) instead of a grammar school. He uses the example of a parent making the choice. Later he adds that the child got very good exam results at St. James'. However, he makes no comment or refuses to be drawn on the tendency for grammar schools to have better exam results than comprehensives.

... a close friend of mine has a ... daughter ... and she is academically very able. And when she was in my class as a year 6 child, I remember her saying to me, I was a teacher then rather than in any other official capacity, saying to me 'Do you think she would be happiest going to the St. James', or should I put her in for the eleven plus?' [I said] 'if she passes the eleven plus, and I have no doubt she will, she has then got the upheaval of moving to a new school, making new friends, the difficulties of actually physically getting to it. Whereas she is going to be going with people she is friendly with, she knows, people who have worked with her over many years.' At the end of the day, to me, those are important factors. ... (Mr. AL, Primary Head)

On the other hand, in a relatively privileged feeder area, St. James' was thought of as rough. In the following extract, size, 'bullying', lack of personal attention, 'smoking' by 'boys', a 'rough estate' next to St. James', 'ill-mannered' children are all identified as signs of a distasteful 'culture' which can envelop a school. Sending a child to such a school, therefore, from a small primary, like his, with a completely different culture is, to say the least, inadvisable. In other words, habitus and field clash if children from Rockford Primary go to St. James'.

There are also reports of bullying. Last year two kids were transferred from St. James' to the Slingworth because of bullying. The local opinion is thus very strong against St. James'. People think that because St. James' is big it is very difficult to keep tabs on the children; that it is not strict and also that it is not a very caring environment. Whereas Mr. KK at the Slingworth knows everybody. He knows all the children's names and thus it is a more caring place. St. James' is better for girls than for boy and this is related to the culture. The heroes that boys look up to are 'smoking layabouts'. Girls, however, have better role models and therefore do better at school. The boys seem to be lacking manners ... Discipline is important, but depends upon the catchment area ...if it is in a rough area, it is difficult, and St. James' does have children from a rough estate. The two children that were moved because of bullying, were moved because there didn't seem to be anything done about the problem. The opinion [of parents] is that it is too big a place to keep an eye upon all the children. ... I certainly would not send my children to St. James' because it is just not a caring place. The children are just not taught manners. At the primary schools they have had children from St. James' come on work experience. They have been awful. There has been little monitoring of their progress by St. James'. They are usually sent with no idea of what they want to do in the future. Most don't want to be teachers or care for children, but didn't know what else to do. They are ill-mannered. One child called a teacher at St. James' a 'silly cow', [this was] in the staff room, in front of all the teachers at the primary school here. I have not been very happy with the students we have had from them here. If a child is shy I would tend to recommend the Slingworth because Rockford is a small school and if they left and went to St. James' it may overpower them. (Mr. CW, Primary Head)

Some of the middle class parents commented on the class and community conflicts that going to grammar school could involve. The following extract is from a focus group discussion with 4 middle class parents.

Mrs. Y: I think that they have a more rounded education in a comprehensive than they do in a grammar school, be it a mixed grammar school. I think they meet people from all walks of life in a comprehensive school, I mean, that's what they are going to do when they go for a job. They are not going to be cosseted are they? Whereas I think with a grammar school they are very much...

Mr. A: With the private sector it is even worse...

Mr. B: I think I have seen cases in the village ... That there is a certain isolation when kids go from a village.

Social class was an important factor for the headteacher of St. James'. It was a concern that the more working class children there were in the school, the more likely this could disadvantage the image of the school in terms of raw exam scores.

Researcher: It (the area around St. James') seems mostly professional to me?

ST: I don't think that is so. ...that estate across there has got quite a few problem families in there, and the intake is shifting slightly towards what you might call down market. Looking at our stuff, trying to predict examination results, for example, that you might have predicted. We will be going down, which is another way of saying our intake for the successive years is drawn from a slightly different strata than it was. So, I mean, that is an interesting point. We are aware internally, but we aren't going around saying our exam results are going to get worse because that would be wrong. We are hoping that looking at value-added and so on, and things we are into, we will be able prove that our exam results are just as good. Just a raw scores dip.

St. James', he thought, was losing pupils for four main reasons. First, owing to the idea of a 'marketplace' in education which many of the local working class parents '... do not have an explicit view of'. As Ranson argues the marketisation of education helps to reproduce exclusion and disadvantage:

The market is formally neutral, yet substantively interested ... [it] masks its social bias ... [reproducing] the inequalities which consumers bring to the market place. Under the guise of neutrality, the institution of the market actively conforms and reinforces the pre-existing social order of wealth, privilege and prejudice. (Ranson cited in Evans and Vincent 1997: 107)

Not being aware or conscious of a market in education demonstrates what Bourdieu (1986) suggests is a 'sense of limits from ... experience'. Or, put another way, 'that's not for the likes of us.' Drawing on Durkheim he argues '... the conservation of the social order is decisively reinforced by what Durkheim called logical conformity' (Bourdieu, 1986: p. 470; author's italics).

Second, the emphasis on choice of school from government, was leading some parents to consider schools like they consider other products in a consumer market. Clearly, one could argue, there is a superficiality or glossiness and hype within the rhetoric of parental choice. His implication here seems to be that one needs to look below the surface: education, in his view, should not be another consumer good. Nevertheless, the discourse of consumerism is a powerful one, something, for example, which seems central to the current debate about the so called 'postmodern condition'. As Miller and Rose (1997: p. 144) suggest, the debate seems to hinge around the thesis that 'consumption has replaced production as the key to the intelligibility of the present.'

...the fact that it is on the national agenda, and parents can hear politicians saying two things: one is education is in an awful state which makes then jumpy, and secondly, they talk about choice of school ... obviously with the current government who have been in power all that time. I think it is inculcated as certain with parents that they are not being good parents if they are not trying to make some kind of consumer choice.

Third, he was critical of the superficiality of official information on performance which he described as 'disinformation':

And then, of course, the so-called knowledge that's been put into the hands of parents which has been disinformation, in my view. Like raw school league tables which actually are very bad news for the consumer in my view.

Thus performance indicators in the educational marketplace, particularly raw exam scores, did not take into account improvement in performance compared with that prior to the point of admission to secondary school:

The problems I have got with the way things have gone with choice and marketing is, I mean, nationally, is that it is very complex. It is not like buying a Mars bar, just do you like it or don't you. And it is genuinely difficult for parents, I mean, it is sometimes genuinely difficult for professionals to say whether it is a good or bad school. And I think the way the Government has acted is to display a crudity, an over simplicity which has actually damaged... Like just to take exam results , as an example. I think there are perfectly simple ways of using value-added to show whether a school is kind of in the frame for converting the prior attainment on intake to a respectable set of examination scores. Which you could use to show that most schools were doing a reasonably good job.

Fourth, a number of local developments had a direct bearing. This included the availability of selective schools in the South of the region. On this subject he makes an interesting comment on the gendered nature of selective schools. His comments exude professionalism, in that he deflects away a question about gender as an issue in terms of recruitment policies and practices of the school towards parents who may, 'perhaps', espouse traditional attitudes about separate male and female social roles, basing their choice around this view.

Researcher: Is gender an issue in this school in terms of the way you recruit? Do you find, for example, that it is easier to recruit boys than girls, or does it not make any difference?

ST: No, I don't think it makes any difference. I don't think it has ever been an issue. The only very, (repeats) very slight thing that you might come across is that among the people that think Grammar school is best perhaps, occasionally, come across the really old fashioned view that it is important for boys because, you know, men work don't they, and women don't. So you might still come across an old-fashioned family that think its more important to get the boy to Grammar school, more important than the girls...

More local parents were now requesting that their children take the eleven plus. In addition, a new City Technology College had opened right opposite one of the feeder schools. This is 'very high profile ... backed by political parties, and had ministers coming down to open it.'

The other particular issue here was the arrival of the CTC school. Now, I mean, I don't know whether you can call that a particular feature. In any situation, if a new school was opened I suppose it would change the market, in this particular case. It is very high profile because the government was pushing it saying this is the new type of school of the future, the local political parties were saying that. You know, they had ministers coming down to open it. I think there was a huge amount of publicity about the high-tech nature of it, the investment was going in. So, I think, even as compared with the ordinary opening of a new school, it was giving out very, very high profile, positive, publicity.

On this latter point about the CTC, these schools were deliberately introduced by government to shake up the local system (Ball et al, 1995). However, in the case of St. James they are simply losing pupils because of the 'very high profile' CTC with which they cannot compete.

Localism and Class

Regardless of the social class of the parents, the strongest theme underpinning their wants was that their children's happiness was paramount. In addition, proximity was usually the initial filter.

ST: I wouldn't overplay that (league tables), because I still think an awful lot of parents still go by what they used to, which is, 'Well, they will go to the nearest school if we get a good feel about it.' ...

Researcher: What do you think are the most important factors for parents choosing this school or any school, but preferably this school?

ST: I think that statistically, just in terms of the biggest factor for the most number of people, is just ease of access. You know, nearness, transport, that kind of access. Now, having said that, because most people kind of take that for granted up to a point. I mean, that it is perhaps, particularly true in a rural area, they may not even make that explicit to themselves. But I would guess that has always been top and always will. And, you know, you look at where the people come from, the natural catchment area. It is a big consideration, in terms of both the amount of time the child has to spend on a bus and the cost.

Quite naturally, for all parents initial selection criteria were distance and transport.

We went round three schools, didn't we. They really suit the area and we know that they are very good... There is the school down at the bottom, the...

Yes, it was just between X and St. James'. Yes it was just between them both for getting there really, for transport as well.

Well, basically, then, we went and looked around about three [including St. James'], I think, three schools, (all were selected initially for distance and transport).

(Most of the people he knew who were choosing)...had a look [at schools selected initially for distance and transport reasons]... And then it was basically where we was location wise and ease of transportation, with all the buses and that.

[The other choice was] X. But we decided against that because of the travelling, we'd have to pick him up and drop him off there.

However, as shown above the more middle class parents would consider schools out of their immediate locale if they were deemed to have properties which would increase the lifechance prospects of their children. In addition, for middle class parents whose children had the option of the eleven plus, St. James' was usually the second choice. The following comment is fairly typical here.

Anna would have gone to the High School if she'd have passed her 11+ but she missed it. I put the High School down as the first choice and then I put St. James' down and, then, as soon as she'd failed St. James' heard and then they offered her a place. I didn't want her to go to (nearest non-selective because it had a poor reputation).

As noted by the Principal of St. James', the recent emergence of the CTC school had resulted in a fall in demand. This analysis of decline is strongly borne out when considering the data from the interviews with primary heads and of those selecting schools other than St. James'. Of the 7 primary headteachers who said they normally served as feeders, 6 clearly indicated that numbers going to St. James' were falling and going elsewhere. Only St. James' Juniors said their numbers remained constant. When considered together, six main factors emerged as explanations from the primary heads for the general attrition in demand:

Clearly then, the availability of the CTC and selective education were important factors for St. James', which, as a comprehensive, could not compete in terms of resources, both culturally and substantively. Grammar schools and the private sector generally were seen by many heads and middle class parents as not just supplying better exam results but they also refined, developed and added to the cultural capital of middle class children who knew 'how to play the game.'

Most of the primary heads and the head of St. James', when talking about working class parents, strongly emphasised the dimensions of 'whimsy', 'gossip', 'local reputation', and 'disinformation'. For example, one primary head noted that another comprehensive had reversed its poor reputation by methods including having its name mentioned in press releases of a former student who was a very high achiever. Her deeds, including being headgirl, leading an expedition abroad and doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award, were perceived locally as 'heroic.' This route was suggested as something which St. James' should explore - targeting (the success of) high achievers.' Indeed, of the parents we spoke to, those who did say that St. James' produced high achievers, tended to express this in terms of exam results or going to university. However, nobody talked of what might loosely be described as 'heroic achievement.'

Featherstone (1992) depicts heroic life as an attempt to escape the routine, repetitive and mundane aspects of everyday life. For Featherstone, heroic life is a masculine type of self-realisation where adversity is overcome by bravery and sacrifice. Becker (1973) argues that society is '... a structure of status's and roles, customs and rules for behaviour designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.' Whilst the argument that society is primarily a vehicle for heroism is not of concern here, the implication from the primary head is that St. James' should promote its heroic 'high achievers'. This view seems to have a grounding in the factors of choice he suggests parents consider, and within social science theory.

In terms of the impact of promotional activities of schools on parents, hype, that is, exaggeration and distortion, seems to have been a very important factor. That is not to say that schools were consciously engaged in promoting hype but the impact of appearances given to parents, or 'impression management' (Goffman, 1969), seems to have impacted more on working class than middle class families. The following tale seems to indicate the distorting impact of hype. One of the primary heads mentioned how parents (mostly working class) were attracted to a nearby comprehensive competitor with St. James' because they had a high profile opening ceremony for an expensive new computer centre. This included media publicity and getting a TV personality to open the centre. What he was not aware of, however, was that St. James had recently gone to equal lengths with their new computer centre, including getting a round the world yachtsman to open it. Clearly local sources of information seem to have shaped awareness for the head and, as he claims, for his parents.

Discussion: The Habitus, Fields, Consumerism and Playing Games

In a recent article by Tooley (1997) the research of Ball et al (1995) on choosing a school is criticised quite fundamentally. They are criticised for making global generalisations about social class effects on school choice and their methodology is criticised in considerable detail. Whilst the details of this criticism are not relevant here, it will be worthwhile to emphasise that the findings of this research are generally similar to the findings of Ball et al in two main ways. First, 'it shows the interplay between social class, cultural capital and choice ...' (Tooley, 1997: p. 53). Second, it shows how middle class and working class families are bound up in the process of social reproduction. For the former through their conversion of their habitus into cultural capital, and for the latter by their failure to be able to fully, or sometimes even partly, engage with the 'market' of 'choice'. There are, however, subtle differences between the analysis presented here and the work of Ball et al. First, this paper is different in that it has focused exclusively on parents choosing a local school - St. James'. Second, the emphasis here has been on the consciousness of the relationship between habitus and field. Thus stress was given to how consciousness of the habitus/field link was much more evident for the middle class parents, and how a form of social matching was engaged in by some of the primary heads in their counselling of parents. A threefold typology was suggested: conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious. This contrasts with Ball et al's typology of 'working class locals' (Tooley, 1997: p. 57) and 'middle class cosmopolitans' (Tooley, 1997: p. 64). The former being much more likely to chose the local school, whilst the latter 'touch base with the local system', but also look beyond it in terms of the 'educationally specific and longer term' compared to 'working class respondents' (Tooley, 1997: p. 64).

As for Tooley's critique of the generalisability of Ball et al's study, it is not claimed here that the parents in the sample are representative of all parents. It is simply posited that the findings add to the large body of evidence to show that the working class are disadvantaged when it comes to playing the game(s) of life - in this case, choosing a school. They demonstrated significant features that are common with the broader population; that is, the findings concur with those in other work on social class inequalities in education.

Bourdieu's concepts of the habitus and field were useful here in that they reveal, as a part of his general resource theory, how many working class people referred to in the research are not equipped with sufficient social, cultural and economic capital to play the game of choosing a school. As the head of St. James' puts it, in so many words, many working class parents do not have what could be described as an 'explicit view', or awareness of, a 'marketplace' in education. Middle class parents, on the other hand, showed a skilful feel for the game. Many were well aware of statistical performance data on local schools, whilst working class parents tended to be less informed. Many were also very adroit in terms of choosing a school. For example, in showing awareness of 'good school' catchment areas and putting down grammar schools as second choice just in case the children failed the eleven plus.

In particular, Bourdieu's depiction of the habitus/field interlink within the process of social reproduction has been illustrated by reference to the issue of choosing a secondary school in the educational marketplace. Thus recognition of the idea that habitus/field interlink was evident in the data. Middle class parents tended to show the greatest awareness of this. Some stated, quite clearly, that if schools were found to be lacking for their children, in terms of lifechance effects, they would pull them out. The inverse of this view is the example of the parents who had sent their children to St. James' as a type of corrective measure to 'pull them up to scratch.' One girl had been transferred in from a private fee paying school because she had underachieved there. Her brother had behavioural problems and the perceived all round conciliatory approach of a comprehensive was thought to suit his needs (they would also not have to pay any fees). The environment of St. James' was thought to be more conducive to their needs than the private sector. Many primary heads counselled parents on choosing a school in terms which reflected a detailed awareness of the habitus/field interlink. Some warned against taking up selective education if this involved separation from friends, family and community as did some of the middle class parents. Whilst one head from a small, predominantly middle class village cautioned parents about sending children to a certain comprehensive which was thought of 'by parents' as large, impersonal and rough.

Indeed, the link between habitus and field also helps to make sense of the ideology of parentocracy which dominates education today. This represents a deliberate structuring of the field of education, so the new expanded habitus of the expanded consuming classes can operate within it. Within the habitus of parents where choice and taste enhanced their distinction, it could be argued that this almost reached a state of hegemony because of the extent of exclusion of working class parents from playing the games of education. On a broader scale, this exclusion is arguably much greater for the very socially and economically deprived because of the expansion in the field to accommodate the greater numbers of consumers.

For the head of St. James', parents are 'inculcated by government to make a consumer choice', and raw league tables 'do not tell the whole story, which is bad news for consumers.' Obviously, this does not take into account his earlier statement that 'many of our parents do not have an explicit view' of a marketplace in education. However, his point is valid for the semi-conscious parent, as he notes, league tables do not give a sufficient indication of improvement in ability compared with achievement measured at the point of entry to school. Thus 'it is genuinely difficult for parents to know what is a good school, or a bad school', because exam results are crude and oversimplified. St. James' is a school with a strong local profile. Nearly all working class parents were unequivocal in choosing it, whereas more middle class parents tended to look elsewhere.

For the primary heads, the triggers of 'whimsy', 'gossip' and 'local reputation' shaped choice of school, particularly for working class parents. Therefore, one school was more popular than others because stories had circulated amongst parents about the 'heroic' achievements of pupils. In the opinion of the head, the school was not any better than St. James'. Another head talked of one comprehensive having a high profile because of the marketing of its computer centre. This school, he said, 'was no better, or no worse' than St. James'.

All of these aspects then, it could be argued, constitute a form of symbolic violence against the working class families who were not equipped with sufficient social, economic and cultural capital, in terms of their habitus, to see beyond the superficiality of local and, indeed, national information, whether it be formal or informal, on school performance and status.

The radical restructuring of education in the 80s and 90s has had a profound effect. The traditions of going to the local school are beginning to wither, and here it was found to be associated with the volume of social, economic and cultural capital possessed by families. The provision of 'community education' has been replaced by internal competition, 'governor power', marketing and hype within a system based on the principles of consumerism. In many ways, these changes parallel the contingencies in the wider social system. The challenge for sociologists is to make sense of such underlying social processes in relation to social action using whatever conceptual tools are at their disposal. This paper has drawn on the work of Bourdieu, particularly his depiction of the habitus/field link, to make sense of the impact of the social on choosing a secondary school. For those who deny social class effects on education, they would do well to consider Bourdieu's view that, whilst individuals have agency, this is being socially constructed within a political economy of symbolic violence.


Many thanks to Richard Voase, Jenny Hockey and the three anonymous referees for comments on this paper.


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