School Choice and Social Class – A critical review of three articles In this paper, a critical review of three related articles on school choice and social class research is presented. These are: Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz’s (1996) qualitative research on school choice and social class; Tooley’s (1997) response to this research article; and Ball and Gewirtz’s (1997) rejoinder to Tooley’s response. Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1996) set out to examine and conclude in their research paper that choice is ‘directly and powerfully’ (p.110) related to social class differences, and that choice is a major factor in maintaining and reinforcing social-class inequalities. According to Dictionary.com choice can be defined as an act or instance of choosing, or the right, power or opportunity to choose. I agree with Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1996, p.89) that any attempt to ‘reduce choice making to one simple formula or metaphor will only lead to over-simplification and misrepresentation’ (p.89). It is suggested that the ‘perspectives on choice’ (p.89) are adequately analysed within a series of papers that they have produced based on data from an ESRC-funded study. However, the assumption is that readers will access the other papers in order to understand their definition of choice. It can be argued that their use of a limited ‘subset’ of 137 semi-structured interviews over a period of 39 months (Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz, 1996, p.89) can be problematic in that it raises issues of validity and generalizability on two accounts: Firstly, the sample size and make-up (that is the number of parents and type of parents interviewed) limits its validity for national or global generalization. In addition, there appears to be an under-representation of the ‘working class’ in their final year of study. Tooley (1997, p.220) points out that only 27 parents were interviewed in the last year of the study. However, it can be argued that the depth of the study provided through evidence from ‘lived markets’ (p.89) could make generalizability more acceptable in this case. Secondly, the changing nature of ‘social settings and … participants’ in ‘lived markets’, as Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1996) describe it, can change over time and could produce a different set of results. For instance, educational reforms at the later stages of the study might have led to interviewees at the end of the study having had very different experiences of the schooling system to those earlier in the study. I agree with Tooley’s (1997, p.219) assertion that ‘the Education Reform Act  had had the most time to become established.’ Thus, supporting the notion that the changing nature of social settings and participants make validity and generalizability difficult. Ball and Gewirtz (1997, p.580) counter-argue this: …the relationship between choice and class appeared consistent over the three years despite the passage of time, provides triangulating and evidence which would appear to strengthen rather than distort our conclusions about the inter-connectedness between choice and class (Ball & Gewirtz, 1997, p.580). Nevertheless, the localized nature of the study set in London boroughs can be problematic in terms of generalization across other types of settings, for example: rural areas in England and Wales which do not necessarily have the distinctive features of inner-city London.
Furthermore, the locations of these boroughs are not made clear; as Tooley (1997) suggests they are ‘camouflaged’ (Tooley, 1997, p.217). This has implications for sampling; assumptions could be made about the class of families (and access) prevalent in certain boroughs; for example, the population is mainly privileged class in Chelsea and Kensington, and working class in Tower Hamlets, therefore, it would have been more helpful if researchers have included a less ‘camouflaged’ account of, and clearer justification for, their choice of sampling. The limitations of their qualitative research and sampling could...
References: Ball, S.J., Bowe, R. & Gewirtz, S., 1996. School choice, social class and distinction: the realization of social advantage in education. Journal of Education Policy, 11(1), pp.89–112. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0268093960110105 [Accessed October 24, 2014].
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Tooley, J., 2006. On School Choice and Social Class: a response to Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 18(2), pp.217–230. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0142569970180205 [Accessed October 24, 2014].
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