Social class, school track choices and parents’ involvement in school – past and upcoming evidence from France

Published on: Author: Mark Murphy Leave a comment

Katherin Barg April 2017:

We know from research conducted for many Western countries that students’ social background has a strong impact on important educational transitions and their educational pathways. Students from higher social classes are more likely to access general school tracks as compared to vocational ones, or to go to university instead of following a vocational qualification. We also know that these social class differentials cannot be fully accounted for by the association between social class and student’s school performance. In other words, social inequality at educational transitions is not only due to students of lower social origin having – on average – lower performance levels than students of more favourable social origin; holding constant the performance level, students from higher social classes are still more likely than students from lower social classes to access higher educational tracks.


Through the seminal work from Raymond Boudon these associations between social class of origin, school performance and educational transitions became known as ‘primary and secondary effects of social stratification’. While the primary effects represent the relationship between social origin and school performance, the secondary effects are the social class differentials that remain when holding student school performance constant.


To explain where the secondary effects come from rational-choice models of educational decision-making were proposed. These assume that parents and students evaluate costs and benefits of different school tracks or educational pathways in order to make decisions at educational transitions. In particular they evaluate the student’s chances of successfully completing a certain educational track and whether the completion of the track will enable the student to achieve an occupational position that will maintain the family’s social status. This latter factor is also referred to as ‘relative risk aversion’ or the motivation of parents and students to select an educational pathway that will prevent downward social mobility for the family. The secondary effects then occur because higher social classes have more financial resources to support their children’s longer academic careers and the children in higher social classes perform on average better in school and therefore seem more likely to succeed in the more academic pathways. The secondary effects are also driven by the need of higher social classes to have their children complete higher educational tracks in order to maintain the family’s social status. Families from lower social classes can have their status maintained even when the child attends a lower educational track.


But what if the institutional setting of the educational transition is organized in a way that not (only) parents and students but the school and teachers make the crucial educational decision? The case of the transition from lower to upper secondary school in France appears to be an interesting institutional setting to study this question. In France, parents and students first make a school track request. This means that they formally tell the school which upper secondary school track they would like the student to attend. This is either a general upper secondary school track leading to a general qualification, which can give access to higher education studies, or a vocational upper secondary school track. Then the staff meeting of the school – which consists of the student’s teachers, the headmaster and parent representatives – makes a school track proposition. Families can reject the school’s proposition but only few do so. My past research (Barg 2013b, 2015) shows that considerable social inequality emerges throughout this dialogue between family and school (see Figure 1). Parents from higher classes (EGP I and II) are more likely to request the general track (LGT) than families from the working class (EGP VI, VIIa) and the school is more likely to propose the general track to families from higher classes than to families from lower classes (for instance 83 percent to EGP I-families as compared to 40 percent to EGP VI, VIIa-families).

Note: LGT=general track; LPA=vocational track; GR=grade retention; EGP stands for the Erikson-Goldthorpe-Portocarero scheme which is the basis for the UK NS-SEC-scheme of classes; * 956 families, which is corresponds only to around 8 percent of all families; the rates presented in Figure 1 are for families who requested LGT but were proposed LPA or GR by the staff meeting. Source: Barg (2015).


I also found secondary effects on families’ school track propositions – given the same school performance, families from higher social classes are more likely to request the general track than families from lower classes – and discovered considerable secondary effects on teachers’ school track propositions. That means I found that when students have the same grades, teachers are more likely, on average, to propose the general track to students from higher social classes than to students from lower classes. The question that then came up was where does this ‘middle-class bias’ in teachers’ decisions come from?


I proposed that teachers take into account four factors when making their decision (Barg 2013a, 2013b, 2015): student’s chances to successfully complete a specific school track, the probability that parents reject their proposition, ‘benefits’ of choosing a specific track like the professional satisfaction of giving a student access to a ‘suitable’ educational pathway, and ‘costs’ like disapproval by parents, students or colleagues. In order to evaluate the probability that a family rejects the staff meeting’s proposition, the staff meeting considers a family’s request and family traits that indicate their willingness and capacity to make the effort of rejecting the staff meeting’s proposition. Such traits are parents’ educational attainment and social class position, their involvement in school (e.g. initiation of meetings with teachers) and attempts to influence the teachers. Indeed, my past research (Barg 2013a, 2013b) shows that parental involvement is stratified by social class and that involvement in the form of membership in a PTA, for instance, positively affects the staff meeting’s decision, even when family’s school track request and student’s performance are held constant.


Following up on these findings, in my current research projects I study whether parents become involved in order to influence teacher decisions and whether this decision-making process drives social class differentials in parental involvement. There is plenty of quantitative and qualitative research showing that parents’ social class is related to their involvement in their children’s education and insightful theories and evidence from different disciplines deal with a number of factors influencing parents’ decision to become involved. However, status maintenance motives as presented in the ‘relative risk aversion’-model have not been examined in the context of social inequality in parental involvement in school yet. So I currently analyse French and British data to answer questions such as

  • Do parents seek contact with teachers in order to influence teachers’ decisions about their children’s future educational pathways?
  • Do parents increase their involvement when their children have problems in school and do middle-class parents more do so than working-class parents?
  • Do social class differentials in parental involvement in school differ by institutional context? For instance, are there differences between countries due to different educational systems?

In future blogs I hope to present the findings of these current research projects.


Read more:

Barg, K. (2015) Educational choice and cultural capital: examining social stratification within an institutionalized dialogue between family and school. Sociology, 49(6), pp. 1113-1132. (doi:10.1177/0038038514562854)


Barg, Katherin (2013b) Social class differentials at the transition from lower to upper secondary education in France : School track choices, parental involvement and grade retention. Mannheim [Dissertation]


Barg, K. (2013a) The influence of students’ social background and parental involvement on teachers’ school track choices: reasons and consequences. European Sociological Review, 29(3), pp. 565-579. (doi:10.1093/esr/jcr104)



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