Myth 5: Parents make choices about schools based on how good they are

The debate about the role that non-state actors should take in education is divisive. Discussion is made all the more difficult because of the prevalence of myths circulating on the theme. A series of blogs on this site covers the 10 myths listed in the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors, aiming to spark discussion. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

Deciding a school for your child is a big decision. It’s assumed that when parents make this choice, they’ve done their research and base it on robust information. And that they’re choosing schools because they are the best quality. But there are two main factors which point to this being a myth, which we are aiming to dispel in the 2021/2 GEM Report on non-state actors, and in this series of blogs.

The first issue is that data on schools’ impact are too complex for most countries to manage and communicate. So, parents either lack the information they need to make a decision or do not have it in a form they can understand. Even if test results might be available comparing one school to the next, they do not account for the fact that student intake varies from one school to the next, with better off, well-educated and highly aspirational parents much more likely to choose a private school for their child – something we will be addressing in Myth 7 of this series.

The second issue is that parents have all sorts of reasons for the schools they choose, and they may not relate to quality. As the New York Times podcast, Nice White Parents, puts it, even if we think we are choosing quality, in fact what is guiding our choices might be something else altogether.

School choice is not open to all parents. Socio-economic status is directly related to whether parents can choose between schools in the first place, what criteria they use and what information they base their decisions on.

It is generally assumed that access to more schooling options allows parents to find a school that matches their preferences, to stay engaged and to see their children achieve better outcomes. However, poor parents usually lack choice and have limited access to information, and their dissatisfaction with public services is not heard.

Where parents can make a choice, while they may base it on perceived or actual school quality, there are other dimensions that may be unrelated to quality that they will take into account, relying on objective information as well as shortcuts such as social networks or visual cues from the state of school infrastructure. A review of 26 parental choice studies from 14 countries found the top reasons for choosing a school were academic quality, teacher quality, location and safety. When choosing schools, parents in 17 OECD countries prioritized a safe environment (92% classified it as important or very important), an active and pleasant school climate (89%) and academic achievement (81%).

What do parents understand by a ‘good quality school’? Research shows that they tend to be looking at class size, teacher quality and effort, school responsiveness, discipline and safety, and language of instruction. In Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 45% of parents with children in private schools said they would prefer to send their children to public schools, but only if they provided adequate security and quality, in terms of teacher quality, effort and absenteeism. In India, a child is more likely to attend private school if the teacher is local and almost always present.

But what parents report that they care about is not always reflected in the choices they make. Research in the United States has shown parents reporting that they value academic quality but their actual choices suggesting they care more about schools’ demographics than they are willing to admit. Such findings also emerge from analysis of education systems where parents can choose between public schools, such as in New York, where parents choose schools enrolling high-achieving students. Analysis of school choices in Santiago, Chile, also found that parent decisions were more influenced by school demographics than academic reputation. Parents in Nepal focused on academic reasons for school selection, but some clearly stated that choosing a public school could have negative social status ramifications.

Religion, ethnicity and culture are important determinants of choice. In Chile, school quality and religious education are more important for richer parents, while proximity to school is more important for poorer, indigenous and less educated parents. A study of Islamic, Christian and public schools in Burkina Faso and Ghana showed that the opportunity to acquire religious knowledge was an especially important reason for choosing an Islamic school. In seven sub-Saharan African countries, parents expressed higher satisfaction rates for private, faith-based than for public schools. In Malaysia, location and ethnicity, as reflected in medium of instruction, and school ‘reputation’ were the top reasons for choosing Chinese- and Malay-medium primary schools. An analysis of 15,000 students starting primary school in the Netherlands found that more educated parents had stronger preferences for school quality than less educated parents and that religious denomination and education philosophy were more important predictors of choice.

Similarly, gender-related cultural considerations can play a role. An analysis of Learning and Achievement in Punjab Schools project data in Pakistan found that being a girl decreased the probability of attending a private school by 6 percentage points. In Haryana, India, it was found that parents sent sons to English-medium private and daughters to Hindi-medium public schools. In Indonesia, apart from cost, religion was a reason why some parents chose a private school, as they enrolled girls in non-state madrasas. In Sierra Leone, parents who highlighted a safety preference for girls were more likely to choose government over private schools. In Egypt, young women said their parents, concerned about safety, had chosen closer public schools instead of far-away private schools for which they would have needed public transport.

As can be seen, there are many other factors at play than quality when parents choose schools. Dispelling this myth helps break the glass bubble around the belief that private schools are somehow better in all senses of the word.

Read the 2021/2 GEM Report to find out more.


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