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School choice and local place

Project funded by the ESRC 2009-2011.

Researchers: Bridget Byrne and Carla de Tona

Schools are the subjects of intense anxiety regarding the education and socialisation of children. One indication of this is the media coverage of the allocation of school places. Since the promotion of parental choice in state school allocation since the 1980s, the motivations of parents in making these choices and the ways in which they might 'beat' the system have been the subject both scholarly and popular attention. Media coverage tends to focus on the production of much-scrutinised league tables. Much of the research in this area has focused on how the middle classes are attempting to ensure that their children go to the 'best' schools and particularly the schools which have the most middle class intake ('people like us'). This project has sought to widen the focus from that of class to understand how ‘people like us’ (or perhaps importantly, unlike us) is also a racialised category.

Using semi-structured interviews with parents in three areas, as well as observation of key points of in the ‘choice’ timetable (particularly school open days), this project also explores the way in which schools are intimately connected to local spaces and the ways in which parents perceive and participate in their local communities. This gives further depth to the understanding of how people often understand local areas as marked by specific race and class characteristics and how this influences their everyday interactions. It also enables an analysis of how this affects the way they engage with local institutions, such as schools.

Outputs from the research


Bridget Byrne and Carla De Tona (2012) ‘Trying to find the extra choices’: migrant parents and secondary school choice in Greater Manchester’ British Journal of Sociology of Education January 33: 1

Bridget Byrne and Carla De Tona ‘Multicultural desires? Parents talking about school choice’

This paper considers the ways in which parents talk about choosing secondary schools in three areas of Greater Manchester. It argues that this is a moment when parents are considering their own attitudes to, and negotiating with multiculture. Multiculture is taken as the everyday experience of living with difference. The paper argues that multiculture needs to be understood as shaped not only by racialised or ethnic difference (as it is commonly understood) but also by other differences which parents consider important, particularly class, religion and approaches to parenting. The paper also argues that attention needs to be paid to the ways in which similar terms of "multicultural" and "mix" are applied to very different contexts, be they particular schools or local areas, suggesting there is a paucity of language in Britain when talking about multiculture.


Bridget Byrne ‘Choosing school: talking class’ BSA Annual Conference LSE London April 2011

It has been argued (by Stephen Ball and others) that, in choosing schools for their children, white middle-class parents are looking for sufficient 'people like us' for their children to mix with. This is generally understood as a classed category. This paper will explore how parents from a range of class positions and ethnicities talk about what they are looking for in secondary schooling for their children. In particular, it will focus on the different ways in which class emerges - or fails to emerge - as a salient category in parents' discussions of school choice. This will enable reflection on the interaction between discourses of race and class in the everyday.

Bridget Byrne ‘Choosing schools, talking class: class and racial differences in parental discourses around school choice’ CRESC Workshop The Sociology/Social History of Class: conversations with Anthropology

Bridget Byrne ‘Schooling and the city. Talking race through place’

This paper will explore the inter-connected way that discourses of race and class emerged in interviews with parents about school choice in three areas of greater Manchester. Race and class are both categories that many people struggle to talk about and, in the case of choosing schools are also interwoven in the ways in which they shape parents’ preferences. This study will explore how these discourses varied according to the areas in which people lived. It will also examine the ways in which both class and race could be spoken through references to different areas, thus representing codes for talking about difference.