The dilemmas of school choice

There is no perfect option and yet for some it is a symbolic crossroads

Last month I was one of the parents finding out which secondary school was offered to my 11 year-old son on National Offer Day. It had been a quite a tense wait for the outcome – unfortunately the quality of our local ‘school market’ is not great at present to the point that I only felt able to express a preference for two schools, rather than listing the offered maximum of six. Ultimately we are satisfied with the result as early impressions are that the school is a nurturing one with high standards.

Nonetheless, I can’t seem to shake a sense of concern at this pivotal moment. While some schools do a fantastic job, the inequitable of educational experiences of boys of African and Caribbean origin – being positioned as socially and intellectually inferior in relation to certain others, being differentially disciplined, low teacher expectations and negative peer pressure from others with a confused sense of identity – are well documented in sociological research.

And for many families opportunities to navigate these issues are limited by constraint. The notion of parental school choice is indeed an illusion – the variety and quality of options vary by geography, while the ability to have full access to the educational ‘marketplace’ is determined by economic resources. For example, some social actors switch neighbourhoods or head out of the city for better schooling options. Inner-city families without such resources or inclination weigh up their options: do they very carefully choose a state institution and see how things pan out, take a punt at a further afield grammar, consider the independent sector and perhaps compete for a bursary or take the leap into home-schooling? There is no perfect option and yet for some the decision is a symbolic crossroads.

This concern about how one’s child will be perceived and positioned by their new school is an isolating one, not at all reflected in the current conversations being had about schooling. Take into the account the experiences of minoritized families and different pictures and positions become visible and audible. For instance, the tone of the current debate about grammar schools would change – what aspirant, inner-city parent (myself included) wouldn’t seize the offer of a type of school that for many has provided an almost fail-safe path toward upward mobility? Alas, the opportunity of inner-London grammars will arrive too late for us, if at all. My son and I will make the most of what we have been given come September.

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