Why School Choice is Bad for Social Mobility

I am quite a good example of  social mobility. My parents only completed obligatory school – that was four years in rural Portugal in the 1950s – and started working at 12. They moved to France and then Switzerland in the 1970s, and worked their whole lives in unskilled jobs. In spite of that, I went to university, obtained a doctorate and have now a permanent academic position in a highly-ranked university.

However, this upward mobility was only made possible by certain conditions. I grew up in Switzerland, where the quality of education was probably much better than what it would have been if my parents had stayed in Portugal. I grew up in a relatively wealthy village with a library just down the street, that I would visit at least twice a week to refill the comics and books that I didn’t have at home. Most importantly, I grew up in a country where everybody goes to state schools, and where there is no choice in selecting your school. Social reproduction is obviously present, but there is no stigma attached to state schools, as is often the case in Britain. Actually, it may be the contrary. The only people I know who would go to private schools would typically be children of wealthy parents who didn’t make it in the state system. If their grades weren’t good enough to go to the higher tier of the state system, their parents would place them in a private school with classes with only 5 pupils and tutorials to hold their hand until university. Same for university: I just went to my local university without even thinking about going elsewhere. All Swiss universities are pretty good. Even if you don’t go to university, which is the case of about 70% of each age cohort, you can still make a very good life thanks to vocational education.

I have friends in the UK who have children, and I am amazed by how complicated it is early on to select the right school for your children. If you don’t put them in the right primary school, they then might not get into the right secondary school, and then not get good enough A-levels and then they won’t go to the right university, and then they’ll basically fail their life. Even if you’re a good student, you won’t be drilled in the same way to go to a good university in a bad state school, and people seem to rely to a much larger extent on the shortcuts provided by school or university rankings.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my parents had moved to the UK instead of Switzerland, without knowing which schools are best, without being able to afford to send me to a private school or live in the catchment area of a good state school, without writing English well enough to lobby for me to go to a better school, besides not being able to help me with my homework. I probably wouldn’t have done as well because my parents wouldn’t have been able to make the right choices for me, or wouldn’t have had the money to make these choices. This is not because my parents didn’t want the best for me, but their conception of hard work has more to do with getting up early and working hard, as they have done their whole life, rather than educational achievement that they haven’t experienced themselves. In the UK 42.5 per cent of all children whose mothers were highly educated but not British were taught in disadvantaged schools. With the children of poorly educated mothers, the figure rises to 80 per cent – the worst record in the OECD. Hence, being educated but an immigrant doesn’t even offset the segregation created by school choice.

School choice in the UK places so much of a burden on parents that it is naturally bound to reproduce social inequalities. Even if the money part is left aside, it assumes that all parents have the same cultural capital to make perfectly informed education choices for their children and help them “fit in” in the middle class environment of quality schools. Hence, a government advisor – who “was raised in a £150,000 semi-detached house (…), went to Aylesbury Grammar School and then on to Cambridge University” apparently declared that working-class children

need to become more comfortable with middle-class social setting such as restaurants, theatres and offices if they are to succeed.

Working class families are urged to watch plays, visit museums and try middle class food, restaurants and shops to broaden their child’s life experience.

This is simply amazing: as if a middle class habitus could be acquired with a few trips to the national gallery. Even assuming that children need to conform to middle-class values to perform better, working-class children are very unlikely to acquire these values if all rich kids stay amongst themselves in private schools. Now it’s no wonder that Britain has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the OECD. For instance, in no other OECD country is the income of your parents so correlated to your own income. Only 3% of the richest 20% have mothers with no qualifications. The social segregation allowed by school choice is also one of the reasons why this huge country is run by such a small group of upper-class people with so similar backgrounds, via Eton, because that is where social networks are built, and working-class kids are excluded from them. Now the government says that it wants to rewards people who “work hard and get on”, but people who do – like my parents – without education credentials have seen their real wages fall and the major parties abandon them.

This may be related precisely to so much school choice that upper class parents can more aptly exploit, either by placing their children in private schools or knowing better how to place them inthe good state schools, while children of working class parents are left amongst themselves in poor quality state schools. A strong quality public education sector seems to be a much better way to counter these tendencies, while increasing school choice seems bound to perpetuate them.


Ending school segregation is the key to social mobility

UK school the “most socially segregated in the world”

3 responses to “Why School Choice is Bad for Social Mobility”

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just send your child to the nearest school, with all the neighbouring children, and assume that (roughly speaking) they were getting the same level of education as they would anywhere else? It’s sad that nothing much has changed since the 1940s/50s, as reported in Jackson and Marsden’s Education and the Working Class – they found that middle class families knew what to ask for, which rules could be bent etc to get their children to the ‘right’ school, whereas the working class families kind of took what they were given because they (rather logically) thought all opportunities were the same.

  2. […] I would assume that the existence of unpaid work as a necessary step to become an “insider” in academia would have similar effects. There was an an article about recent research in Germany that showed that professorships had not become more open to less advantaged social backgrounds in spite of the mass democratisation of higher education. It had in fact become slightly more elitist, which struck me especially in the light of my own experience. […]

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