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What are middle-class parents looking for in a school?

Only at Eton: the Eton Wall Game. Eddie Keogh/Reuters

When Michael Gove was secretary for education back in 2010, he decided that checking whether schools contribute to student mental well-being was a peripheral issue and that schools should focus more on educational achievement. Yet with growing pressure on pupils to achieve academically, there are signs that some parents want more for their children than the ability to pass exams.

Students are facing a lot of pressure at school to get into top universities. Exam stress and the pressures of social media, for example, have led to high levels of self-harm, depression and eating disorders at private schools.

The need to create well-rounded young people, not just those with stellar grades, has come to the attention of head teachers at some of the country’s most elite schools. The new head of Eton has set out a key priority to build emotional intelligence among the school’s pupils. This will help them become more resilient and be able to deal with a fast-changing economic and professional world.

With Nicky Morgan now settled into her post as education secretary, there is hope that student well-being will be back on the agenda.

The shift in focus, even in academic hothouses, means that a lot of parents are also starting to take notice. They understand that their children no longer only need the skills to pass exams but also need to have the necessary tools to be “people smart” and in control of their emotions.

There is a growing interest in what’s called “emotional quotient”: the ability to control yourself through your emotions and understand the emotions of others. Research has shown that this can lead to professional success along with the ability to build interpersonal relationships in different contexts.

In search of something else

This is what private schools are trying to promote: a well-rounded, emotionally balanced education. Middle-class parents are increasingly in search of it, too.

As part of my own ongoing research into the motivations of middle-class parents and school choice, I spent time talking to prospective parents at an open day at a private school in London. They told me how important it is for the school to provide academic drive, balanced with social skills. Ensuring a supportive and stress-free environment seemed to be one of their main worries. They wanted their children to be happy and have the opportunity to explore their talents and pursue them accordingly. They believed that long-term success can be achieved through a holistic education system, not only academic excellence.

Not just about the grades. Luke MacGregor/Reuters

The moral and ethical considerations that middle-class parents face when deciding if they should eschew their local comprehensive and send their children to a private school are balanced out by the fact that they are trying to do the best for them. They realise that although they would like the situation to be different and the local school to be good enough, they want their children to be happy in an environment that will also provide them with necessary social skills.

Sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan who studied an elite private school in the US, suggested that parents are not choosing schools like this because of the standard in teaching or the subject content. Rather it is about the ability to develop social skills, which can be improved if a child is able to understand emotions. The school prepares them for a world in which they will need to communicate with people from different social backgrounds.

Social adaptability

The importance of an open society means that there are opportunities for everyone. Even though social inequalities have not been eliminated, the parents understand that it is not entitlement that will maintain their children’s social position but the ability to socially adapt. It is a trait that needs to be instilled in pupils who will go into the workforce in a few years – which they seek to find at schools.

Another 2007 study in England, which interviewed 63 middle-class families in London who had actively chosen to send their children to multi-ethnic comprehensive schools, found that parents did not want their children to go to private schools because they do not become “street savvy” and could become soft, even naive. They wanted them to become more socially adaptable and resilient, acquire multicultural capital, be able to co-exist with a range of other people and have knowledge of other cultures and religions.

For middle-class parents who have the money to spend on their children’s education, these skills are easily pursued by sending them to private schools where academic drive is taken as a given. Perhaps politicians should realise that some parents have an evolving view of what is considered to be good achievement, and reconsider how this can also be measured in state schools.

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