Allegations of parents cheating and bribing top-tier universities in the US to secure their children's admission have caused a media storm in recent weeks. Those indicted included members of the Hollywood elite.
The US attorney said "there can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy". The parents' actions were denounced, in a system that claims it does not, and will not, allow parents to purchase academic success.
But the reality is that the education system feeds into the "choice" parents make. In Australia, and elsewhere, the system doesn't favour academic merit, but parental wealth. Instead of meritocracy, we see a parentocracy – the actions and wealth of parents act as key determinants of a child's academic success.
Parentocracy not meritocracy
Caregivers using privilege to buy their children's way into, and through, education is not a Hollywood anomaly, nor the domain of elites.
Governments and education officials may claim education systems are pillars of meritocracy, with effort and ability key to success. But the middle class have long being recognised for their ability to use their economic and cultural resources to negotiate education systems on behalf of their children.
For example, research demonstrates Australian parents use economic resources to:
- enrol children in academic tutoring specifically to prepare them for selective schools tests
- have children attend NAPLAN skills days and camps after school and in school holidays
- buy practice test books and additional resources to prepare children for standardised examinations including NAPLAN and HSC (and similar senior school certificates)
- engage academically able children in private tutoring to ensure an "academic edge"
- participate in school choice markets including enrolling children in private schools with extra resources and state-of-the-art facilities
- buy real estate in catchment areas enabling enrolment in preferred public schools.
Education policy and parenting
It's too simplistic, however, to write off the actions and spending of parents as a personal choice made only to seek educational advantage for their children. The way we parent reflects more than an individual's choice. Parenting practice echoes the society we parent in and the institutions (including schools) we interact with.
If we are to talk about parents' interactions with schools, we must also reflect on government policy.
Let's consider NAPLAN and the My School website. The introduction of NAPLAN in 2008 and My School in 2010 was a significant change for Australian parents. For the first time, they received student reports that measured not only their child's individual achievement but their achievement against other students in their school and against a national average. My School allowed comparison of whole school results with other schools nationwide.
Government touted both policies as means to individualism – providing freedom and opportunity for parents to enhance their "informed choice" in decisions involving their child's education. But, for some parents, new information resulted in new pressures and new obligations.
As a case in point, research tells us NAPLAN has resulted in anxiety for some parents, and many are concerned about how NAPLAN results are used. In one study, parents said they were worried about requests from secondary schools to bring NAPLAN reports along to interviews prior to enrolment.
For many this means NAPLAN is not just a source of information. Poor results could pose an educational risk. And parents are trying to negate that risk.
To alleviate perceived risk, parents have participated in an ever-growing NAPLAN market. The sale of NAPLAN practice test books, for example, almost doubled from 2011 to 2012. Private tutoring and coaching colleges offering targeted NAPLAN services have seen exponential growth. An estimated one in seven Australian school children attend tutoring outside of school.
Under these conditions, parents using their economic resources is about more than educational advantage. Arguably, it is also about an obligation to act to guard against educational risk.
Parents don't act alone
German sociologists Beck and Beck-Gernsheim argue parenting and parenting actions must be understood in the context of policy, institutions and how this translates to parents. They call this "individualisation". In these conditions:
It is no longer enough to accept the child just as it is […] the child becomes the focus of parental effort […] there is a whole new market with enticing offers to increase your child's competence, and soon enough options begin to look like new obligations […]
The key word here is obligation.
Individualisation is not individualism. Individualism assumes parents have a choice. Individualism provides parents with freedom and opportunity to act. Individualisation is the obligation to act – an obligation to protect against real or perceived educational risk.
If we are to critique parents' practice, we must also critique the system they parent in. With this in mind, the reasons behind parents' intervening in their children's education may be more complicated than we think.
Kellie Bousfield is the Associate Head of School, School of Education, Charles Sturt University.