Mothers and school choice : effects on the home front

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There have been substantial changes in the way that families interact with schooling at the point of school choice. These shifts have been brought about by market orientated educational policy changes, and by altered forms and experiences of ‘family’. This study explores this changed dynamic by researching how a group of mothers in one urban setting engaged in school choice over a period of fourteen months. The research set out to investigate the processes, behaviours and influences that mothers took to the task of choosing secondary schooling for their children. In particular it aimed to explore the personal, familial, cultural and social dimensions of this engagement. These objectives were pursued using feminist and phenomenological frames because these theoretical approaches allowed for a gendered and contextualised analysis of experience. Data was gathered longitudinally through return interviews with 20 women from one socially and culturally diverse local government area in Sydney, Australia. The analysis of data is informed by perspectives on markets and consumerism from the field of cultural studies. Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘capital’, ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ were also used along with the feminist concepts of ‘emotional labour’ and ‘emotional capital’ to analyse the way that neoliberal market orientated educational policies impacted on this group of middle Australians. This research shows that the Australian experience of school choice is an emotionally rich, highly context-specific, complex, gendered and cooperative process that contests the prevailing public rhetoric about the operations of markets and of choice. School choice, while not always welcomed by this group of middle Australians, is an overtly gendered activity mostly overseen and undertaken by mothers in gender-specific ways. For these women school choice was an activity that demanded considerable physical and emotional labouring adding significantly to mothers’ work in support of their children’s education. Further, the research showed how within this new marketised context, the family became the site for the contestation of taste via the negotiation of differing economic, social, cultural and emotional capitals vis a vis the structural imperatives imposed by the market. It showed that for these women and their families in this location, at this time, the promise of ‘choice’ was a hollow promise indeed.
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