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A parentocracy is a system in which a child's education must conform to the wealth and wishes of parents rather than the abilities and efforts of the pupil,[1] in contrast to a meritocracy, which distributes educational and financial rewards according to abilities and efforts. Parentocracy is a sociological concept that reflects political ideology, and has influenced the organization of schools since the 1988 Education Reform act.[citation needed] Fundamentally, the parents have dominating rights and choice in education regardless of means.[citation needed]

Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, social policy has created a relationship between parents and schools in the UK, which is characterised by the principles of marketization. It is argued that parents are now primarily seen as educational consumers, whose choices determine the type of education their child receives. For example, a parent's choice to live in the catchment area for a particular school potentially determines that child’s educational success. This idea–that parents are consumers through marketization–is countered by obligations and restrictions. The capacity to exercise choice is limited by social class, both on economic grounds and cultural capital, e.g., the actual cost of moving into an catchment area with a desirable school.

Sociologists Fulcher and Scott say that in a parentocracy, Resources + Preferences = Choice.[citation needed] As Ball, et al. says, not everyone has the same resources to make the same decisions.[citation needed] For example middle class parents are more likely to pay for tutoring for their child to pass exams, while working class may have the same intention but cannot. Ball also discusses how marketization only ‘appeared’ to create a parentocracy, by providing equal right to education and letting parents choose which they want their child to attend.[citation needed]

Sharon Gerwitz explored this, writing that middle class parents have more economic and cultural capital than working class parents, and this lets them take advantage of the choices available.[citation needed] They can send their children to schools they desire by having the ability to afford travel expenses, and that they can move into a catchment area easier than that of a working-class family. She also noted how middle class parents socialised their children into attending church just to get their children into schools considered reputable. This shows how, as Ball, et al. says, wealth largely determines the extent of choice.[citation needed]

Despite the argued inequality and lack of choice, many factors counter-act this. For instance labour policies included things such as education action zones to improve choices. Education action zones supposedly identify areas considered deprived so that they could be improved through additional resources. A recently approved proposal raises the school leaving age to 18.[citation needed] This increases parentocracy as it helps student of all backgrounds receive a higher education, as opposed to the previous age, 16, which restricted many students and families.[citation needed]

Another policy, EMA, also encourages more choice, as it enables students from a low income family ( e.g., working class) to have education equal to those from any class or ethnicity by providing an educational maintenance allowance that helps students stay in school past 16. Witty does think that the EMA policy helps keep working class students continue past 16, but he thinks that higher education fees stops them going further.[citation needed]

As witty shows, fees are important in education, especially considering types of schools such as private schools, which require fees for admission, and even explored fees in higher education, such as universities.[citation needed] Educationalists believed that a meritocracy would foster 'equality of opportunity' in education, breaking down some of the social class barriers that restrict people with fees.[citation needed]

Brown, however, suggests that we are now entering a 'third wave' in the history of schooling, moving away from the 'ideology of meritocracy' to a new ideology of parentocracy. This is driven by a belief in parental rights, and strongly favours the philosophy of market principles in education.[citation needed]

Choice breeds competition—but if schools must compete for reputation, choices may actually become limited as popular schools cannot expand, so they become increasingly selective.[citation needed] The big school lottery programme explores this, providing statistical evidence that out of 830 appeals of parents who didn't get their choice for their child’s education, only 28 were successful and 95 per cent were dismissed all together.[citation needed] Judd agrees with the views expressed by the programme, saying that between 25-50% of parents do not get their children into their choice of school.[citation needed] This is similar to the fact that schools can opt out of government control. This elaborates how those who can afford it can choose a school with high admissions cost ( such as a private school), while those who cannot are restricted to limited to free or less expensive choices. Even expensive schools, however, can fail.

Additionally, By 2008, nearly 90% of secondary schools in England became specialist schools, providing a range of specialist options from business, engineering, or maths—to humanities, music, and art.[citation needed]

Raey says that marketization created growing inequalities in education among parents especially in relation to class, gender, and ethnicity.[citation needed] With the introduction of parent contracts, home and school contracts made parents responsible for students truancy, and put them at risk of fine, prosecution, or even prison.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Brown, 1990:65

Brown, P. (1990) The 'third wave':education and the ideology of parentocracy. British Journal of Sociology 11:1. Is Britain a parentocracy? Exploration of whether we really have a choice in our childs schooling.://