So it would seem that education is still rooting itself in the gaps between social groups.  Hardly surprising, we’ve long accepted that the richer you are, the more access to a better education you appear to get.

Social inequality

Is it any wonder that Oxford and Cambridge, despite attempts to the contrary, still admit far more public school students to their colleges than any other?  Why tuition fees and support for students infinitely favours the richer in society and leaves the relatively less-well-off out?

Well, it would appear that social imbalance, from an education point-of-view, begins with an unexpected source, it would appear.  Generally it has been considered that families and parents do the best they can, given their income and resources available.  However, the Sutton Trust gave us all a little surprise with a report that details how far some wealthier parents will go for their kids…

Parent Power?  Using money and information to boost your children’s chances of educational success was a report detailing a survey of more than 1,000 families up and down the country, looking into the habits of parents from different social backgrounds. The results are, unfortunately, a little bit depressing and certainly indicative of a plutocratic society.

  • First and foremost, the report details a clear class gap that hasn’t changed much. Just over 36% of children eligible for Free School Meals (perhaps one of the clearer indicators of wealth in parents) gained 5 A*-Cs at GCSE, compared to nearly 63% of those who weren’t eligible.  This gap has remained ‘broadly stable.’
    Children from the richest 20% of families are three times more likely to pack their bags for university than the poorest 20%.  We can even take that classic stereotype of Oxrbridge and the elitist Russell Group and back it up:  7% of pupils in this country are privately educated, yet admissions of privately educated pupils into the Russell Group stands at 17% and Oxbridge that rate is over 40%.  To be in the best, it would seem, you have to have a bit of money behind you.Parents are keen to jump on this a little bit.  Given a great desire to see their children to succeed, parents are in a position of pressure to make the right decisions.  Of course, given that some are better off than others, we’re left with different levels of capability, varying knowledge and ultimately a social imbalance.
    First of all, let us strip away the difference in wealth and social class and look at some generic facts.
  • To open, there was a higher percentage of respondents to the survey as you went up the social class scale (A, B, C1, C2, D and E, with A being the highest.)  Are parents in lower social groups somewhat less inclined to discuss their tendencies?  The evidence would suggest so.
  • 3% of parents have admitted using the address of a relative to get a child into a different school than they would have normally.  6% attended church services they wouldn’t normally attend just to see their child admitted into a church school.  Interestingly, 10% of upper-middle class families said they did this – higher than the average.  Perhaps this shows a certain appeal to church schools – prestige even?

Now we begin to break it down by social class and some of the results and interpretations are perhaps not so surprising.

When children had been sent to a state school, the percentage of parents who said that they would have sent their child to a private/independent school if they could afford to remained more or less even among every one of the social grades – around 20%.  Clearly, you can draw from this that there is a certain desire to get kids into private education.  However, given the extraordinary fees some institutions charge, it would be pretty obvious to say that some social groups are more likely to be sending their kids there than others.

The parents were then asked ‘well, how far would you go to get your child into a ‘good’ school?’

  • Parents from Class A were more likely to appeal a local education authority decision to send their child to a particular school.  I can imagine that, in the vast majority of cases, this would be because parents didn’t think it was the right (ie best) school about.
    What does this tell us?  Could it be that those from a ‘lower class’ felt more content?  I suspect that it is more likely there is some disparity in the availability of information provided.  After all, those who are wealthier are considered to have more access to information and experience that dictates the course of action.  Such experience might include going through a potentially expensive appeals process or experiences at university – something that, historically, has been a bit of a privilege.
  • Some other tricks that some parents have used include moving to a specific area where a ‘superior’ school is located.  It serves as no surprise that this has adjusted house prices over the years and means that some prices are grossly inflated – pushing them out of reach to all except the richer of society.  By default, that makes this a very exclusive solution.  Not surprisingly, the percentage of parents doing this rises sharply as you go up the class scale.  The same can be said for those who move into a catchment area for a specific school – the premium on such homes.
  • Well, what about something rather elite, only for those with serious money to burn?  If you look at those who purchased a second home to get their child into a certain school (yes, people have done that)… well, you end up with vast gap between the classes.  Does that surprise you?  Well, once I got over the fact someone would do that, then it didn’t surprise me.
  • How about some unscrupulous measures?  We’ve already mentioned parents going to church to get a child into a church school (more prevalent in Classes A and B than any other, interestingly) but what about a blatant form of cheating?
    Class A parents were more likely to use a relative’s address to register a child for a certain school than any other group.  Even when you remove the variable of wealth/income, it stands at 3% of the overall population surveyed.  Some people clearly will go to extraordinary lengths to get their child into a specific school.  Interestingly, in this question the second-most common category for this was actually Group E, representing the poorest.  Is that what they have to do to get a solid education for their children?  Depressing, to say the least.

So what’s been the reaction to all of this?

Well, one of the authors of the report, Professor Becky Francis, said that such findings show how massive parent’s purchasing power can undermine equality, adding that ‘the ability for some parents but not others to use financial resources to secure their children’s achievement poses real impediments for social mobility, which need to be recognised and addressed as detrimental to society.’

On the other hand, Nick Faith from the think-tank Policy Exchange argued that it wasn’t right to stigmatise parents for wanting the best for their children and that making parents ‘scapegoats’ should be avoided.

Considering parent’s educational spending as a detriment to society is a strong view, though I do agree that it is rather unfair to base our future on our parent’s success.  We each write our own story and so to have a better opportunity because my mum or dad did better than someone else’s is a little unjust.

After all, according to the former Governor of Washington State, Christine Gregoire, “One of the most powerful tools for empowering individuals and communities is making certain that any individual who wants to receive a quality education can do so.”




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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.