Friday, 27 May 2011

Free school meals - the new middle-class badge of choice

I'm currently doing a literature review, in the form of a realist synthesis, on middle-class activism and its impact on local public services. In the initial trawl of literature we found about 30 articles. An immediate, striking fact was that only researchers in education and rural housing regularly explicitly referred to the "middle-classes" as an important group in understanding patterns of service provision.

Anyway, because of the education stuff, from researchers like Gill Crozier, this morning's story about Academies and Free Schools being able to prioritise access for pupils receiving free school meals caught my eye. You hear the apocryphal stories of middle-class parents pretending to be Catholic and other things to get their children into good schools. But what evidence there is out there really does suggest that this is what middle-class parents do. What is worse, when this is done it often actively excludes others from school - such as working class or African American parents. Knowing this I can guarantee we will see middle-class parents hiding household income so they can get free school meals and get their children into a good school.

This is all very worrying. But one thing that struck me with the stuff I've read on education and rural housing is that it does portray a very stereotypical view of the middle-classes. In the latter case, it's a bit like reading an academic analysis of social relation in The Archers. In the former case it's all about supermums and pushy parents. This is predominantly because most of the evidence is qualitatively. I've no problem with this - it's all useful evidence for the realist synthesis. And on the education side, I know that the anxiety of middle class parents is widely known about. However, this body of work presumes that for all their pushiness and anxiety, the middle-classes are successful at, for example, getting more money spent on their child's education. The only evidence I've actually seen for this are a couple of ropey regression models from the states.

From what I know, schooling quality only impacts on a tiny amount of the eventual outcomes for children. So, it might not actually matter that middle class parents are pushy. What matters is income inequality. And if schools don't get more money from having a more middle class intake, why worry about pushy parents?

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