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Social Stratification Reproduced in Education

By choosing education for their children, parents tend to perpetuate social inequalities. While educated middle-class parents invest in their children's future by selecting the best possible school and becoming actively involved in the educational process, working-class families often feel they cannot afford to choose and instead, send children to the nearest school, expecting them to make it on their own, according to Larisa Shpakovskaya, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, HSE Campus in St. Petersburg.

Russian schools struggle with social mobility, as differences among schools and the choices that parents make for their children reflect the extent of social stratification in the country. By choosing a school for their child, parents determine the future educational path, based mainly on the family's background, including the parents' education, social status, financial situation, and cultural capital.

Educated families of a high socioeconomic status usually make an effort to find the best possible school for their child, even if it requires an investment of money (paying for tuition and sponsoring a school) and time (some parents even quit their job to help their child succeed at school). Parents in Russia have been known to buy a car specifically to drive their child to a prestigious school at the other end of town or move to a different apartment in order to be closer to the child's school, according to Shpakovskaya's paper The Educational Expectations of Parents: a Mechanism That Reproduces Social Inequality, published in the HSE's Journal of Social Policy Studies, Issue 2, 2015. The above examples may appear somewhat extreme, yet they illustrate the overall tendency among middle-class families to navigate the educational services market as smart and demanding consumers.

In contrast, few working-class families in Russia spend sufficient time researching the educational options available to their children.

Shpakovskaya's study is based on data from her recent interviews with parents in St. Petersburg, including 25 mothers and 10 fathers of children aged 12 and younger from households of different incomes and educational levels. In addition, she reviewed the findings from the HSE's studies of family behaviour (150 interviews conducted between 2010 and 2014), and some five thousand postings from parents' forums. Her analysis focused in particular on respondents' socioeconomic status and educational level, i.e. the variables that determine their cultural preferences, values, lifestyles, etc.

In her research, she distinguished between working-class respondents, defined as people without higher education employed in menial or service jobs, and middle-class respondents with higher education employed in IT, management, research, art, engineering, and other intellectual occupations.

Parents Hinder Social Mobility

According to many experts, families' educational choices can perpetuate social inequalities, as children tend to reproduce their parents' socioeconomic status.

Social mobility, including access to quality education, can help young people overcome the 'fate' of their family background; however, ascending social mobility is rare in Russia. Even though certain mechanisms designed to create equal opportunities are nominally in place – such as the school proximity rule allowing poorer parents to send their children to a prestigious school located close to their home – in practice, according to Shpakovskaya, the middle class use their resources "to bend the rules in their favour."

Thus, parents driven by incorrect ideas of how education works often hinder social mobility, as shown by western sociologists such as Annette Lareau and Diane Reay who demonstrate how middle-class parents act strategically by decoding signals from the local educational market to pick the best schools for their children. Such families view education as a joint venture between teachers and parents and work to organise extracurricular activities for children and supervise their homework.

In contrast, working-class parents, in choosing a school, are guided by their children's wishes, which are often influenced by their peers.

Middle Class Parents Look for Schools with a Decent Social Environment

Middle-class families expect a school to ensure psychological comfort, provide quality educational services and motivation to learn. According to Shpakovskaya's middle-class respondents, teachers are expected be sensitive while projecting authority, and should avoid discouraging children from learning. Such families also tend to be demanding of the school's social environment and prefer their progeny to be surrounded by "children of well-to-do parents."

In some way or another, middle-class parents desire their children to have the same school experience as themselves. Typically, such parents attended prestigious schools and now insist on finding similar schools for their children, often relying on insider information from teachers and counselors or from school reviews posted on online communities of parents. In other words, affluent parents possess a cultural capital which helps them navigate the educational market.

School Location More Important for Working Class Parents

Respondents from working class families usually expect the school to be well-resourced and conveniently located; they tend to be concerned about preparing their child for future survival in a hostile social environment and emphasise the need for teachers to be strict and consistent.

According to Shpakovskaya, working-class parents find it hard to assess the quality of education their children are getting, as their sources of information are usually limited to other parents from their community whom they may meet in the playground or at a health clinic. Such parents prefer their children to study in a friendly environment, rather than attend some elite school where students are well dressed and use expensive gadgets. "These respondents would not want their children to suffer social stigma," Shpakovskaya explains.

Whatever the social group, parents' expectations tend to reflect their own experience; middle-class families expect their children to be successful students and choose a school which encourages academic achievement by promoting psychological comfort, supportive teaching, and students' high self-esteem. Instead, working-class parents define academic success as being able to "overcome the inevitable difficulties in life."

Middle Class Invest in Their Children's Future

All respondents say they are prepared to pay for quality education; middle-class parents, however, see their spending on education as a series of varied investments, from buying a car for driving the child to school to modifying their careers by choosing flexible working hours or freelancing.

People who can afford to invest in elite education for their children would be prepared, in exchange for the child's admission, to offer financial assistance to a chosen school and contribute in other ways as an investment in their children's current and future success.

Working Class Parents Adapt to Circumstances

Instead, poorer families choose schools based on the limited opportunities available to them. In other words, working class parents find the barriers to good education – such as lacking the money, time and information – insurmountable. They believe, for example, that having to start work early in the day limits their choice of school for children.

They agree that paying for education could compensate for the lack of choice, but they cannot afford to pay. In other words, sending their children to a particular school is often a forced choice. Notably, working-class parents rarely associate their children's early academic success with good educational prospects for the future, according to Shpakovskaya.

The most important difference between the two groups of respondents is that while middle-class parents are actively involved in children's education by engaging with the teachers and supervising homework, working-class families rely on their children to succeed at school without much help.

Thus, social segregation is perpetuated within the educational system in two ways.

First, families of different socioeconomic status use different approaches to choosing a school for their children; while the middle class build educational strategies for their offspring, the working class adapt to circumstances and accept whatever is available.

Second, there is a significant difference in how parents from different socioeconomic groups invest in their children's education, thus maintaining patterns of social inequality.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, August 18, 2015