Choosing the education for your child is obviously a pedagogic matter and also sometimes an economic one. But it’s also often a moral matter, as well, in the sense that it’s an individual choice that affects wider society. If, as we do, you have an academic child (one who is both bright and amenable to learning in an academic context), then she is likely to be a benefit to whatever school or university she goes to. She will improve their official results, she will encourage her teachers and lecturers by her appreciation, she may possible inspire and even assist some of her fellow-students. What responsibilities, if any, does this impose on a parent acting morally?
There seems to be a common view that ones only moral responsibility as a parent is to one’s child; any action is justified if it is for your childs benefit. That is obviously misguided if the parent has a distorted view of what benefits the child: a lot of poor discipline (both over-harsh and over-lax) is due to a parent’s confusion about what benefits their child most in the long term. But suppose that a parent can make, in certain circumstances, a reasonable judgement of what will benefit their child. Should a benefit to their child always be held to outweigh that to a wider group?
I would argue not. For example, I have for many years made a relatively small monthly donation to a third world charity. At first this was used to educate a specific child: now it goes to help a whole community, but still particularly its education, in the broadest sense. If I wanted to, I could stop my support of that charity and spend the money on buying more books for L. I could afford to buy 3 or 4 books more for her a month: she would enjoy that and it might benefit her education. But the benefit would probably be marginal; she has a lot of books already, and shes not short of things to read. In my view it is more moral to continue to support a community in Gambia, even at the marginal expense of my child.
The fact there are cases where it’s justified in benefiting the wider community as against your own child establishes a principle, but it doesn’t, of course, give any guidance as to when this should be done. Utilitarianism would say that if I had a choice of paying for life-saving treatment for my own child or for 100 children in the Third World, I should choose the latter, but I don’t think any parent would agree. Making moral decisions about your child’s education means balancing interests, but there isn’t an easy calculus for this.
In the UK the education system is so closely linked to class, that the dilemma largely becomes a trade-off between exclusivity and academic performance. The ‘best’ schools, whether private or state, get good academic results largely because of a socially exclusive intake, which maximises the numbers of the white middle class and takes relatively few ethnic minorities or working class children. Any school, however good the teachers, which has a high proportion of children with English as a second language, with special needs or from an educationally less-advantaged background, is going to have poorer overall results. A bright child sent to the ‘best’ school will probably benefit academically to some extent, but will contribute less relatively to that schools performance and will have less experience and knowledge of the whole of society. A bright child sent to a ‘less good’ school may lose out academically, but will benefit that school more and will have a broader experience of society. (There is also a separate issue of where the child would feel happiest, which is in many ways the most important, but can’t be discussed in general terms).
My views on the trade-offs involved can’t be separated from the educational experiences of myself and my husband, so a bit of background is necessary on that. We met at the Oxford college we were both studying at. Before that, I had been first at a small village primary school. The intake of this was largely working class, with a sprinkling of the middle class, but it had a head teacher who inspired me. I then went to a comprehensive (mixed-ability) school in a ‘good’ (= prosperous middle-class) town. My husband, meanwhile, went to a rural primary school (similar to mine, though larger) and then a grammar school which became an independent (fee-paying) school while he was there.
What I take from that is that different criteria apply at different stages. I dont think moral responsibilities apply to the rest of the society by the time you get to choosing what university you/your child goes to. There is so much benefit achieved by going to the best university for your subject (which is not necessarily Oxbridge) and one student makes so little difference in a university community of thousands, that I think the choice here can be purely self-centred.
The opposite, however, seems to me to be true of primary schools. Given their small size, a handful of bright pupils can make a noticeable difference, and if a childs academic needs aren’t entirely met at school, they can be assisted at home by middle-class parents. Both my husband and I were successful at secondary school and later, even though we did not go to the ‘best’ primary schools. Instead, we went to what I would call ‘good-enough’ schools. Similarly, we chose to send L to a school in our catchment area that had good SAT results, but not the best. It seemed to offer other positive features however (a more multicultural background, nicer facilities, better atmosphere) than another more ‘successful’ school nearby. So far, this seems to have worked out well for L.
As for secondary school, Im still not sure what is best. I think I would have got a slightly better academic education at a grammar school or private school (like my husband), but the difference wouldn’t have been much (I got better ‘A’ level results than he did) and I was able to go from a comprehensive to Oxbridge. I would be reluctant to send my child to a ‘sink’ school in the state system, but there was an interesting recent study that suggested that middle-class children sent even to schools such as those could still prosper academically. I don’t know what the right answer is yet at that level, but when the time does come to make a decision I want to be able to make one that does take into account wider moral issues as well as my childs interests.