To answer this question, 22 parents from Melbourne and regional Victoria, Australia, were interviewed. These parents came from a broad range of middle socio-economic backgrounds. Parents were sourced through school newsletters or advertisements in local community newspapers. The diversity of this group of parents is provided in the table below.
Table 1.Demographics of parents interviewed.
Parents where asked open questions at the beginning of each interview about their children’s education and the school which they attend. A set of specific questions were then asked about when they started to decide on a school, what they thought were positive and negative characteristics of a school, the importance of teaching and academic performance, the culture of the school, and proximity of the school. Questions were also asked to understand how the parents arrived at a joint decision, whether their children participated in the decision making, and how they went about collecting information in order to choose or evaluate a school.
One part of the interview analysis involved tabulating a list of preferences parents indicated as reasons for choosing, or not choosing, a particular school. Each interview was then evaluated to generate a list of preferences that were salient for each parent in their school choice decision.
Diversity of preferences – Behavioural, Cultural & Academic motivations
Analysis of these interviews indicates that parents have strong behavioural and cultural preferences that motivate their choice of school. These preferences were associated with the emotional development of the child, characteristics of the student cohort their child will become part of, and the cultural values of the school. These reflect self (child), group (peer group) and societal (social norms) preferences. More parents (16-18 parents) incorporated these behavioural and cultural preferences into their choice decisions than preferences associated with school resource quality (14-15) such as subject choice and teaching.
Table 2. Preferences raised as salient in school choice decision by each parent.
Behavioural preferences were associated with the emotional development of their children. Parents interviewed had a strong preference for schools that provided opportunities for their children to build their confidence and self-esteem, that motivated and encouraged their children to learn, and promoted positive attitudes. These preferences also extended to the ‘quality’ of the student peer group to which their children would become part of. Parents had a strong preference for student peers who would have a positive impact on their child’s development and were highly motivated in trying to avoid schools with students who were disruptive.
Cultural preferences on the other hand reflect expectations of the social norms their children would learn within the school environment. Catholic schools in particular were valued for their sense of discipline and community that they instil in children. Even choice of government school for some parents was motivated by communication of clear social values by the school principal, such fairness and respect. Parents also view a school with a strong culture and sense of values as being better able to develop and maintain a higher level of student cohort ‘quality’.
Cultural values include religious values but not necessarily a religious preference (religion is not as strong in Australia compared to other Western countries). We see this in choices that parents made: Muslim & Hindu parents who sent their children to Catholic schools; protestant parents who changed from a religious school to academically selective non-aligned independent schools; Catholic parents who were not strongly religious but still choose Catholic schools because of school values aligned with discipline & sense of community.
Surprisingly, a school’s focus on academic performance was only a key motivation for about a third of parents (8 parents). It is important to note the difference between the academic performance of a school and the deliberate focus on academic performance by a school. Academically selective government schools place a heavy emphasis on academic performance and the achievement of the best academic results possible. Consequently in Victoria and New South Wales (Australian states), government selective schools consistently perform better in academic outcomes than elite private schools. However, elite private schools still achieve high levels of academic performance, principally as a result of student peer effects, while also providing children with greater opportunities for emotional and cultural development.
A significant number of parents interviewed were wary of placing their children into an academically hyper-competitive school environments. A few of these parents were aware of the potential for rank order effects. Rank order effects occur when a child’s academic rank within a school cohort impacts on their academic outcomes independent of overall ability. When a child is ranked at the top of a peer group they tend to benefit from a confidence boost. This boost leads to improved academic study, increasing focus and range of learning. Some parents with academically bright children deliberately choose an elite private school over selective government schools to capture these benefits.
Academic performance mattered for parents who had strong preferences for their children maximising their academic results. Most parents however, viewed a school’s ability to deliver good academic outcomes as a being more closely linked to the school’s ability to provide an environment balancing the parent’s behavioural and cultural preferences. Subject to minimum expectations of resource quality and subject choice (particularly languages and the sciences).
The importance of exploratory interviews
Exploratory interviews are particularly useful for developing an understanding of the complexity of how parents choose a school for their children. This highlights the limitations of econometric studies which focus on stated preferences associated with academic outcomes, (for example Burgess et al. 2014), or how school quality (academic outcomes) is revealed through house prices (for example Davidoff & Leigh 2002). Econometrics can only measure what it can measure. Similarly, stated preference surveys (or structured interviews) which simply test for ranking of school ‘quality’ characteristics are more likely to be susceptible to social desirability bias where preferences associated with social positioning become more salient. Focus groups are also more susceptible to this type social bias. In these circumstances, parents tend to articulate their choice of school with reference to social expectations subject to wealth or proximity constraints.
Exploratory interviews, focusing on the parent’s experience of the school choice process, are important because the conversion is framed from the context of the parent-child relationship and not framed in the context of parent-other parent relationships. When parents talk about choosing a school for their children, they talk extensively about how that choice relates back to their children. Parents are more detailed in describing their fears and expectations concerning their choice of school. These qualitatively revealed preferences provide a richer understanding of self, group and societal preferences underpinning economic decision making. Once these preferences are revealed within a choice space, school choice in this case, they can be tested experimentally for strength and direction to feed society-level economic modelling.
Burgess, S., Greaves, E., Vignoles, A., & Wilson, D. (2014). What parents want: school preferences and school choice. The Economic Journal.
Davidoff, IAN & Leigh, A 2008, ‘How Much do Public Schools Really Cost? Estimating the Relationship between House Prices and School Quality’, Economic Record 84(265): 193-206.