School stress strikes anxious middle class

19 February 2009

University of Sydney researchers investigating the growing pressure on parents to choose the right school for their children have proposed that middle class families can be divided into seven different groupings.

The groups, including the 'old middle class', the 'cosmopolitan middle class' and the 'marginal middle class', all had different attitudes to schooling but were almost all united by a sense of anxiety about schooling, and the need to protect their children from the 'wrong' school.

"Many parents now assume the role of astute consumers whose actions are fearful, alert and strategic," says Associate Professor Craig Campbell. "Parents, particularly mothers, are becoming expert operators of the school market, undertaking constant surveillance of their children, teachers and schools."

The research is published in School Choice, a new book co-written by Campbell with Professor Geoffrey Sherington and Dr Helen Proctor and published by Allen & Unwin. The authors trace the growth of different school markets, a major new development in Australian education over the last 30 years.

"Previously very few urban parents looked at the schools in their city and imagined they constituted a market from which they could freely choose," he says. "Today, anxiety about a more dangerous world means that thinking about school choice can begin as soon as the child is born.

"One of parents' most common concerns was to avoid schools which were seen as dominated by too many poor, badly behaved or ethnically alien children who threatened to overwhelm the 'special' learning and social needs of 'my child'," Campbell says.

The past 30 years has been marked by a growing shift in support of government schools to non-government schools, to the point where just 60 per cent of Australian secondary students now attend government schools. But not all parents appear happy with this shift, the authors found.

Professor Sherington commented: "School choice has often been sold by governments as a response to middle class aspiration. But what our research showed was that choice itself has often 'imposed'. We found a significant part of the middle class remains very sceptical about choice. They remain committed to the local secondary school."

The book's findings are based on 63 in-depth interviews with parents who had just been through the process of choosing a school, 1,350 written surveys of parents whose children who had just begun year 7, and Australian census data from 1976 to 2001.

The family groups identified by the researchers - the old middle class, the new middle class, the Catholic middle class, the cosmopolitan middle class, the first generation middle class, the self-made middle class and the marginal middle class - are outlined in the attached document 'Seven middle class groupings'.

Key findings from the research are outlined below:

  • Racial and ethnic groups represented in large numbers at particular schools were often seen as threatening by middle class parents.

  • Parents' - particularly mothers' - roles don't stop at choosing a school they are actively intervening within schools once their children enter them to seek the best outcomes for their children.

  • Selective schools in the survey tended to be more socially narrow in terms of parents' occupational background, with families from professional backgrounds the main occupational grouping in the selective schools surveyed.

  • In the non-government sector, Catholic, low-fee Christian and other low-to-medium fee schools have the broadest representation of middle class groups.

  • The most socially representative schools in terms of parental occupational background are government comprehensive and mixed schools.

  • Enrolment in government selective high schools was often seen as a tradition that could "be handed down along with the family silver," by many Anglo-Australian families, but they were acutely aware of the growing role of coaching colleges in gaining entry, and the heavy demand, especially from some Asian-Australian ethnic groupings.

  • Even some parents who profess disdain for coaching colleges eventually admitted in interviews to either sending their child to coaching schools or coaching their child at home.

  • Not all parents get to exercise 'school choice' as its publicists advocate. There are many parents whose children are 'rejected' by schools. They are 'out of area' for the desired government schools, their children did not pass the selective entrance tests, they weren't religious enough to get their children into church schools, they did not have the money to pay the fees of a desired school. There are a lot of frustrated parents out there in the new school market.

  • Middle-class parents are acutely aware of the advantages of certain geographical areas and tend to do more long-term planning than working-class parents when choosing schools, often purchasing homes in the catchment areas for government schools with good reputations.

  • While many parents expressed support for their local government school, they often did not send their own children there, concerned that their children would be put at risk because of lack of support for 'special' needs, personalities or talents.

  • Many parents interviewed felt upset. They felt they were being 'forced' into the non-government sector of schools because there was insufficient investment in government schools. They thought governments were neglecting them and the quality of education was suffering as a result.

  • At the same time there remain a very large number of middle-class parents who remain satisfied with their local government high school. But the highest rates of satisfaction tend to come from more securely middle-class areas.

  • While the swing away from government schools is happening more slowly at primary than secondary level, there is evidence that parental frustrations with local government primary schools is increasing, leading to earlier withdrawals to the non-government sector.