Choice, aspiration and anxiety in the new school markets

Julie McLeod, The University of Melbourne

Craig Campbell, Helen Proctor and Geoffrey Sherington School Choice: How Parents Negotiate the New School Market in Australia, Crows Nest NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2009 (216 pp). ISBN 9-78174175-656-2 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

At school pick-ups, at homes, in cafés and at work, worried parents debate the merits of different schools, share insider knowledge and gossip about school reputations, cultivate strategies for getting into the ‘right’ school for their child, and endlessly dissect or defend their decision. Choosing child care or primary school pales into insignificance against the intense emotional and ideological investment in making the right choice about secondary schools, and then having the resources and opportunities to activate that choice. Once widely regarded as a default position, even attending the local high school is now constructed as making a choice, one that requires an explanation of why that is the right school for your family and child.

School Choice casts a valuable historical and sociological eye on these issues, looking mainly at the perspectives of middle-class parents in contemporary Australia. Its core concern is the ‘relationship between the emerging markets in education and the making of the modern middle class’ (p. 1). In a highly readable style, the book combines findings from surveys and interviews with parents who, with children in the last year of primary school, are in the thick of navigating school markets, family dynamics and children’s perceived ‘best interests’. Much of the discussion is based on trends in New South Wales, with the participating schools and parents from Sydney, selected to have a fair representation of middle-class families. But the overall arguments—with some exceptions—are likely to resonate in other Australian states, and indeed in many other countries where schooling markets and neo-liberal discourses dominate. National data is used to show some of the major trends in school enrolment in the different sectors—government, non-government, Catholic—from the mid-1960s to 2007. The 1970s saw a peak in enrolments in government secondary schools from which they have been declining ever since: in 2005, 38.2 per cent of secondary students were in non-government schools (this designation includes Catholic and other religious schools), compared to 26.4 per cent of students in 1965 (chapter 3). These figures of course mask state differences and the book maps some of the distinctiveness of the NSW context, where government selective schools are important players in the educational market.

The rise and impact of neo-liberalism is a key theme in this book.

Census data from New South Wales is used to document patterns of school choice across sectors over time (1976–2001) and against a range of variables. These comparative tables are especially revealing, showing historical shifts in school preference against, for example, changes in the labour market and parental occupation. Over this period there was a marked decline in the availability of public sector employment, and the authors point to a possible connection between this and a shift away from dependence on government schools. At the same time, the increase in the number of women working, and growth in the number of dual-income families might also have allowed some families the additional income to pay school fees (pp. 59–75). There is then a combination of complex social, economic, family, and emotional factors contributing to these broad trends in school choice, and the book lucidly and accessibly shows how these choices are currently being played out in Australia.

The rise and impact of neo-liberalism on schools and more widely, and the changing nature and concerns of middle-class Australians are key themes in this book. The last decade has seen a resurgence of research interest in the relationship between class and schooling, but much of this work has explored the politics of class privilege and how middle-class families cement, or struggle to maintain, their social positioning and educational advantage (Ball 2003; Power et al. 2003; Brantlinger 2003). School Choice continues this focus, and develops a close analysis of differences within the Australian middle class (see also Pusey 2003, Teese & Polesel 2003). The authors identify seven sub groups within the urban middle class, and examine the different ways in which members of these groups interact with schools and construct their choices. The groups are united by a sense of self as consumers in the education market place and by their intense desire to make the right choice, yet they adopt different strategies and rationales, and have varying degrees of capacity to realise their preferences. The groupings are: 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. On the one hand, such typologies risk caricature and overstatement, on the other, they allow for a less monolithic view of the middle class. The groups are recognised as ‘open’ and ‘porous’, derived from classification of commonalities in respondents’ interviews, and used as a tool ‘to assist us to explain why some families seem to behave in ways different from others’ (p. 30). And while some may debate the finer points, the characteristics and demographic trends will be familiar to many, and reflect a range of differing ‘narratives and explanations of the problem’ of school choice.

Given the rise of new markets in education, the authors argue ‘it is likely that competitive behaviour among middle-class families is increasing’ (p. 34). One unpalatable, and often unspoken, side of this is that securing advantages and success for your own child means that other people’s children cannot be as successful; that you want your children to get ahead of others, to out-do and outshine their peers. The pressure to make the right choice is not only to ensure that your child is happy but also to ensure that he or she is or becomes better than others—that they stand out (for example, Reay 2005). As Brantlinger (2003), writing about the United States, has shown, this poses difficult dilemmas for liberal, left-leaning middle-class parents who may espouse a commitment to egalitarianism and inclusiveness while also deploying their cultural capital and class position to create competitive advantage for their own children.

Success for your own child means that other people’s children cannot be as successful.

One of the valuable features of this book is its mapping of an historical context (chapters 1 and 2) for understanding the current intensification of choice and the shifting relations between government and non-government schools—or as the authors call them, respectively, government-supported and government-assisted schools. Much research in the sociology of education has documented the impact of neo-liberalism on schooling, evident in, for example, user-pay mentalities and various performance indices, the rise of testing and school ranking, the positioning of schools—including government schools—within a market framework, and a strong focus on the power of individual choice with an accompanying ‘winners and losers’ discourse. Yet the book does more than lament the impact of neo-liberalism. It uncovers some of the ways that complex social changes are mediated through family decisions, and indicates some historical continuities in the operation and culture of non-government schools. The book also shows how this sector is changing, perhaps most noticeably in the growing number of religious schools charging comparatively modest fees.

Interestingly, despite the evidence of growing enrolment in non-government schools, there was ambivalence among parents about the values promoted at the more elite and established end of this sector. Parents might want the promised social success, but the homogenous culture and materialist values many saw these schools as representing were cause for concern for a good many. These values were strong factors in leading some parents to select less prestigious Catholic and other religious schools, or to seek a place in the selective government high schools. This is particularly telling in light of panics about declining social values in government schools and claims, fuelled by the former Federal government, that private schools are the true bastions of solid, decent values and good conduct. In a related vein, the authors point to the growth in relatively modest or low-fee religious schools, which attract parents looking for an explicit and strong focus on ‘values’. Such schools also make it possible for parents to exercise choice and avoid the perceived problems of government schools while not buying into the culture and cost of the more elite private schools. For some parents the religious orientation of these schools is important, but the more significant change is the increasing number of parents for whom this is not directly important—or who may not share the religious beliefs of the school—but who try to get their children into these schools because they find them morally and socially preferable—more affordable, better values, better community—than what else is on offer.

School location remained a salient factor (chapter 6), one often overlooked in more polemical discussions of contrasts between private and public schools; yet for many of the interviewees, proximity to home or work was an important consideration. This is partly about not wanting children to travel too far and partly about having school in the local community. For some families, however, these preferences conflicted with what parents perceived to be limited acceptable local options, and this perception became a factor ‘driving’ them to choose schools outside their area, or to move house to be in a ‘better’ area. As the book—and the Sunday papers—show, such motivations have contributed to rising real estate prices in sought after areas with top-performing state schools.

The intensification of school choice is profoundly re-shaping family dynamics.

There is a substantial and fascinating discussion of the strong position of government academically-selective high schools within school markets (chapter 5). New South Wales has considerably more of these schools than other states, and therefore the market operates quite differently, complicating the simple binary between state and private schooling, which so dominates public and parental imaginations in other states. These promise good results, a high-achieving peer group, and strong cultural currency, without the downside of high fees. The market for these schools exacerbates parental anxiety and competition, and the book canvasses the ways parents attempted to negotiate this—such as exam coaching—and the type of ‘fall-back’ positions they developed in case their ideal choice is not realised. These schools are for many members of the middle class—and particularly for the ‘cosmopolitan urban middle class’—the perfect solution, offering status and high academic results without guilt for abandoning government schools or the ethical and financial quandary of attending a non-government school.

In Victoria, where there are currently only two academically selective schools, the announcement that more selective schools are being established—with two set to open in 2010—was met with mixed response. Some saw it as overdue, an egalitarian measure to give bright but not well-off kids a chance to go to a high-performing school. Others saw it as another way in which regular government schools would become ‘the school of last resort’, depleted of high achieving students and high status cultural resources—thus entrenching educational inequality.

While these have long been hotly contested policy and political issues, one of the great strengths of this book is to show how they are played out in families; and how making choices about schooling has become a seemingly essential quality of being a ‘good—middle-class—parent’. The intensification of school choice is profoundly shaping and re-shaping family dynamics, and this is evident most tellingly in discussions of when choices fail, when parents cannot realise their first preference. Of course, school choice is not available to all parents and the construction of this as part of the cycle of family life also serves to further disenfranchise those families for whom the local schools is always the only option; even when ‘choice’ is not available it remains the framework within which people’s social circumstances, self-identity and future opportunities are judged. Further, as the authors suggest the new regime of market choice risks ‘advantaging the few and disadvantaging the many’ (p. 12). Although Campbell and colleagues acknowledge the wider equity consequences of the school market, the book focuses primarily on the constraints on choice faced by a relatively ‘choice-rich’ class grouping.

School Choice illustrates how the aspirations of the middle class for differentiation coalesce with—or are a product of—neo-liberal drives for choice and market freedom. Individualism and choice connect in several ways: in choosing a school that suits the individual needs and special qualities of your child; in the expectation that the school will cultivate the unique potential of your child; and in the sense that schools are harnessed to and part of the process of the late-modern project of self-making and reflexivity. This reflects some continuity in the historical role of schooling in ‘character formation’ but with a new twist in the urgency with which this work must be micro-managed to ward off future risks, failures and disappointments.

Anxiety and aspiration are threaded through the parents’ narratives.

Although we only get glimpses of direct excerpts from interviews, the narratives were clearly rich, dense with the layers of anxiety, fear, hope and desire. The style of dealing with these narratives is fairly descriptive, telling us what was said to build up an accumulating picture of parental beliefs and concerns. This is sometimes reported via summary of an interview, less often with direct quotation. The inter-subjective dynamics of the interviews, or the psycho-social dimensions of the narratives were not explored—this would, indeed, be another study—but one worth doing, given the complex overlay of emotions, of vulnerability and of determination that informs so much of the decision-making process about schooling. Reading this book, one cannot help wondering how children—whose voices are absent from this study—negotiate not only the terrain of different school cultures, but manage the emotional world of relentless choice-making about their futures and the intensely-felt projections and desires of their parents. With so much invested in the choice of their schooling, what a burden it must be to live up to all this expectation, particularly if the chosen school turns out not to be right for them, even if it is right on the market indicators.

Anxiety and aspiration are threaded through the parents’ narratives. The book touches on some of the ways in which these are mediated according to the ethnic identity of families and the gender of children but the over-riding message is the significance of choice making and managing futures. The research revealed changes in the Australian middle class based on social and cultural origins, educational histories and changing values. But in one respect middle-class families are bound by a common perception. Parents appear forced to intervene in the education of the children in ways unprecedented in living memory (p. 184).

There are many virtues in this important new book about patterns and processes of school choice in Australia, not least the way it illuminates changing relations between families and educational institutions. In the present, a new kind of ‘settlement’ and a new view of the social role of schooling is emerging, one that is dramatically transforming ‘the post-war settlement in favour of the state providing for universal secondary schooling’ (p. 1). For many parents, the good comprehensive school is held up as the ideal, but seen as the exception. This accompanies shifting views on the comparative responsibility of the state and of the individual citizen for good schooling. Locating the construction of school choice and parental desire in this longer historical story is one of this book’s most valuable contributions. School Choice deserves a wide audience—its engaging style brings together new insights and data on the experience and changing forms of schooling and middle-class family life in Australia.


Ball, S. 2003, Class Strategies and the Education Market: The Middle Classes and Educational Advantage, RoutledgeFalmer, London.

Brantlinger, E. 2003, Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage, Routledge, New York.

Power, S. Edwards, T., Whitty, G. & Wigfall, V. 2003, Education and the Middle Class, Open University Press, Buckingham.

Pusey, M. 2003, The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Reay, D. 2005, ‘Mothers’ involvement in their children’s schooling: Social reproduction in action?’, in Activating Participation, eds. G. Crozier & D. Reay, Trentham Books, Stoke-on-Trent.

Teese, R. & Polesel, J. 2003, Undemocratic Schooling, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Julie McLeod is Associate Professor in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at The University of Melbourne. Her research areas include youth and gender studies; citizenship, inequality and education; and qualitative methodologies. Recent publications include Researching Social Change: Qualitative Approaches (with Rachel Thomson, Sage 2009) and Making Modern Lives: Subjectivity, Schooling, and Social Change (with Lyn Yates, SUNY Press, 2006).