Families’ school choice plays a central role in shaping school segregation. The importance of choice in explaining spatial inequalities has increased with the introduction of market-oriented reforms and the increasing competition among schools.
Choice opportunities have proved to be unequal according to families’ different social background, both in terms of access to information and in relation to the criteria guiding choice. These inequalities generally result in school segregation. To compensate for information inequalities it is necessary to address different messages to targeted audiences, both to respond to their specific interests and concerns during the enrolment process and to induce a different logics of choice that may reduce school segregation.
1) How do different families choose a school?
Middle-class and high-income households are more strategic than lower-income classes when choosing school. Moreover, educational priorities vary among different types of families:
- Academic quality is a general choice criterion, but wealthier households seem to give particular importance to pedagogical values and feel attracted by specific pedagogical experiences. Research reveals that lower classes do not ignore school performance or pedagogic projects, but may give higher importance to practical aspects, such as distance to schools or relatives attending the same school. Progressive-type school curricula seem to be specially attractive to families with higher status.
- School composition is an extremely important factor to guide school choice, although it is not always ‘visible’. Families with higher status try to choose schools with less lower-SES children (avoidance strategy) and with a higher percentage of middle-class families, while low-income families show a lesser strategic behaviour for choosing schools on the basis of their social composition.
- Both upper classes and ethnic minorities may show patterns of choice characterised by social closure. Upper classes want to ensure the same class-environment for their children, while ethnic minorities may search for the security of the community or may respond to a practice of cultural emulation.
2) What type of information do different families gather?
Relatives and friends’ educational experiences tend to be one of the most relevant sources of information used by families in school choice, regardless of their socio-economic background. This fact makes more difficult reducing inequalities in access to information, given that this information is strongly linked to the individuals’ social capital. Better educated parents tend to gather more accurate information, while less educated families have less opportunities to obtain more useful information, also because they have less access to information sources.
Moreover, strategies regarding how the choice is made are significantly heterogeneous among households. Middle-class families have occasionally access to non-public sources of information, while lower income parents may ignore relevant aspects about schooling.
The information asymmetry and the diversity of logics of choice can be addressed through targeted information policies. Targeted information, as an alternative to standardised communication strategies, allows local education authorities to expand information and at the same time to make visible some aspects of schooling that are not always considered by all families in the school choice process.
Data and evidence
Different knowledge and choice criteria among families with different parental education attainment
More than 50% of families holding a university degree have a strong knowledge of the school market, while less than 1/3 of families with compulsory education had knowledge about the schools they could choose to enrol their children. Pedagogical project is a proxy of “pedagogical innovation”, and this is especially important for middle class families (almost 60% considered it when choosing school). The ability to know and understand the pedagogical and organizational aspects is not equally distributed among all families. Source: Data from Barcelona. Own elaboration based on Alegre, Benito i González (2010). Les famílies davant l’elecció escolar. Barcelona: Fundació Jaume Bofill
Average distance to school for different groups of students
Non vulnerable families choose schools located further away from their homes (679m), compared to vulnerable families (490m). Families with a migrant background choose closer schools (528m), while native families travel longer distances when commuting to school (715m). In average, families attending public schools travel 587 m, while those choosing a private school commute 803 meters. Source: Data from Tarragona. Own elaboration based on L’escolarització a Tarragona: diagnòstic i propostes d’equitat educativa
What kind of information policies may cities develop?
1) Language can be strategically used to ensure that information is understood by everyone
Examples of policies and practices
Barcelona produced the online “Information for families guide” in eight different languages (Catalan, Spanish, English, French, Arabic, Russin, Chinese and Urdu) and used subtitles in these eight languages for the “Pre-registration step by step” video, also adressed to families. Since the website of the educational local authority allows you to choose languages (through a plug-in incorporated in the web), it is considered not to be necessary to create specific translated materials but to focus on how to make the information accessible to different audiences by language in the digital sphere. In addition, a telephone helpline is available to families to answer questions.
This service is provided with simultaneous translation into 44 languages.
Information guides in Barcelona
Information videos on School enrollment process in Barcelona
2) Messages can be also adapted looking for a specific outcome
For instance, local education authorities may provide evidence about the benefits of diversity and social cohesion to encourage middle class families to opt for schools with a high proportion of low-income or ethnic minority students. They can also encourage the benefits of a balanced distribution of disadvantaged students among low social class families to reduce their concentration in specific schools.
Examples of policies and practices
Barcelona produces since 2022 three different information products adressed to diferent audience. There is a general information guide “What you need to know”, where families find general information about the enrolment process. Moreover, two guides have been designed to answer questions and give information to two specific types of families: “Information for families with socioeconomic difficulties” and “Information for families with children with special needs”.
To know more about
Bonal, X., Verger, A., & Zancajo, A. (2017). Making Poor Choices? Demand Rationalities and School Choice in a Chilean Local Education Market. Journal of School Choice, 11(2), 258–281. https://doi.org/10.1080/15582159.2017.1286206
Denessen, E., Driessen, G., & Sleegers, P. (2005). Segregation by choice? A study of group-specific reasons for school choice. Journal of Education Policy, 20(3), 347–368. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930500108981.
Fong, K. (2019). Subject to Evaluation: How Parents Assess and Mobilize Information from Social Networks in School Choice. Sociological Forum, 34(1), 158–180. https://doi.org/10.1111/socf.12483
Olmedo, A. (2008). Middle-class families and school choice: Freedom versus equity in the context of a “local education market.” European Educational Research Journal, 7(2), 176–194. https://doi.org/10.2304/eerj.2008.7.2.176
Rangvid, B. S. (2010). School choice, universal vouchers and native flight from local schools. European Sociological Review, 26(3), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.1093/esr/jcp024