School choice and morality

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 one’s only moral responsibility as a parent is to one’s child; any action is justified if it is for your child’s 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 she’s 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 school’s 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 don’t 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 child’s 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, I’m 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 child’s interests.


4 thoughts on “School choice and morality

  1. Good post, posing an interesting dilemma that I myself never really encountered. I went, faute de mieux to public (= state) schools in the USA that were probably what you would call “good enough” – far from the best, but not the hellholes one hears about today. I remember being acutely conscious during my first year at university that most of my peers had learned more than I had in high school, but that turned out not to matter much, and by the end of that year I was at or near the top of the class.

    Years later our son went to state primary school in the US (briefly), then in Australia, then on a private (fee-paying, though partly state-subsidized) secondary school in Hong Kong, where his lack of Cantonese language would have effectively precluded him from the regular state system (or handicapped him horribly). He had a better education than I did, at least at the secondary level, but it remains to be seen whether it has made/will make him happier or more successful.

    But in neither of these cases was my/his impact on the school, rather than vice-versa, a consideration; I can see how it might be for you. (Had we raised our son in the USA up through high school, and had we been able to afford private schooling – not likely on what I was getting paid, but this is a hypothetical, right? – we would have encountered the question of whether protecting/advancing him by pulling him out of the state system would have been in some sense betraying the public school system in which the USA has traditionally taken such pride. But we didn’t, so we didn’t.)

    One question, for those of us not UKanian – what are “SAT” scores there? Here they refer to the Scholastic Aptitude Test, taken as a kind of university entrance examination, which I hope is not what L’s primary school is offering!


    • I think the considerations I talk about really only apply to a child who will do well in almost any school. If (as in the case you mention of your son in HK) your child needs what one specific school can offer and others can’t in order to flourish, that seem to me a different matter (just as a child who’s less academic or is lacking in motivation may need a particular school’s ethos). (Though I should note that British middle-class parents are all too prone to assert that their child is so gifted/sensitive/special that they cannot be allowed to go to a school which contains mainly ‘ordinary’ children, because they ‘need’ special attention).

      One issue that I didn’t raise in the initial post is how much this issue is linked to what I’ve called ‘intensive parenting’ (or hyperparenting etc). In this parenting style, the parent’s aim is to develop their child’s abilities as much as possible: it’s often those who take this view who see any parent settling for ‘good-enough’ schools as somehow betraying the child concerned. It is now quite common for someone to be accused of putting their principles before their child if they insist on them staying in state education. Maybe I should start pointing out that I put my principles before L every time I decide not to steal something to give to her, and do they have a problem with that?

      I was attempting to produce a post on schooling that contained as little nation-specific jargon as possible (I won’t even trying getting into the meaning of ‘public school’), but I’ve obviously fallen down on SATs. These are Standard Assessment Tasks, tests taken at age 7, 11 and 14 to indicate how the pupil/school is doing. These are used to produce published school league tables and like any performance indicator, there is therefore an incentive for the school to game them.


  2. More anecdotal stories to ponder:

    As a secondary (=high) school teacher at a state school in the US, I would be considered especially traitorous if I sent my children to privately funded schools. Of course there are schools that have so many problems with gang violence, drugs, etc. that I would be afraid to send my children there, regardless of the positive impact they may have on that school’s environment… Although, I myself graduated from a school that struggled with a low graduation rate, gang violence, teen pregnancy, you name it. Like Dr. ngo, I found that my peers at college had learned more in their high schools, but I also managed to come out at the top of my University class. I hope that I had a positive impact on my secondary school’s environment, but I can honestly say that I’m glad I was not insulated from the realities of the working-class’s struggle for survival. As long as children don’t get caught up in the problems of their environment, it can a real positive for all parties involved if they attend more diverse state schools. I would think it depends on the child’s ability to cope, strength of character, etc. as to whether they can thrive in such an environment. Of course good parenting also goes a long way toward steering a child in the right direction when they’re faced with these kinds of issues.

    Let it not be said that privately-funded schools are free from problems themselves – many of the privileged private school kids in our town were addicted to cocaine or alcohol, as are some of the students in the school where I teach (a state school, but almost exclusively middle- to upper-class). I tend to think that a little bit of struggle in a child’s life, or at least the observation of struggle, is not a bad thing.


  3. This is such a fascinating, well-written blog. I stumbled on it when googling ‘middle class intensive parenting’ and have been browsing your posts under the tag ‘motherhood’. Will definitely be recommending this blog to friends for a read.


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