School Choice: What Motivates Parents
TEACH Journal of Christian Education
School Choice: W hat Motivates Parents
Follow this and additional works at: http://research.avondale.edu.au/teach Part of the Education Commons Recommended Citation
What motivates parents
have for their
they hold for
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Dean, Faculty of Education and Science, Avondale College of Higher Education,
Senior Lecturer, Coordinator, Business Distance Education Resource Centre, Faculty
of Business, Avondale College of Higher Education, Cooranbong, NSW
Introduction independent schools; especially in an era of
The educational system in Australia today is open enrolments. Indeed today many Christian
radically different from the school systems of schools have similar enrolment patterns to other
the past. As Mark
, Chairman of independent schools and offer similar curriculum
the Independent schools Council of Australia choices. Some would even argue that the low fee
writes: Christian school sector has a certain homogeneity
and that the ethos and value system of individual
The expanding role of the federal government in schools is not radically different to other Christian
isncdheopoelneddeunctastieocntoarnadrethmeasjuosrtadienveedlogprmowenthtsowfthhiech schools in this sector.
have influenced the nature of schooling in this Surveys show that parents support independent
country. (p.2) schools for a wide range of reasons. Whether the
reason is discipline, religious emphasis, teacher
The rise of the independent sector has given quality, values in tune with those of the home or
parents choice when it comes to selecting a a rigorous or well-rounded curriculum, parents
school for their children. This increase in choice consistently see independent schools as better than
has been accompanied by a change of focus in government schools in meeting their aspirations and
Australian education. There has been a move in the needs of their children
two major policy directions, marketisation and Before considering what factors parents are
school performance. Both of these policies can looking for in schools for their children, it is important
be seen through a lens of competition, choice, to understand what motivates parents and why
the increasing emphasis on accountability, value they are choosing schools as they do. Parents are
adding to the curriculum through the addition motivated in their school choice by two main things:
of extra curricular activities, and the move to the aspirations that they have for their children, and
make the consumers of education bear the costs the anxieties they hold for them (
). & Sherington, 2009). School choice is therefore
a parental attempt to maximise aspirations and
Parents have now become consumers in an minimise anxieties associated with their children’s
educational market that has seen the rise of a new future. These decisions are made in a competitive
class of school, the new, non-government school market place
where school data on
characterised by non-denominational Christian school performance is made public through websites
values, reasonably inexpensive fee structures which such as the ‘My School’ website.
includes many ‘value addeds’ and management by a This study set out to explore the factors that
board of directors
(Campbell, 2005 ; McCarthy, 2007)
. influence parents’ choice of school for their children
Although Christian communities have largely using a mixed methods approach. Parents with
embraced Christian schools, these schools now students attending Christian schools completed a
find themselves operating in a more competitive total of 102 School Choice questionnaires, and 17
space. With the large increase in the number families with children in schools were interviewed.
of independent schools in Australia, it has The analysis of the data generated two separate but
become harder for schools to maintain their interrelated reports. The first (reported in this article)
special character and distinctiveness from other investigates what motivates parents in the choice
of a school for their children, while the second
report investigates factors parents are looking for
in a school (to be published in the next edition of
So what do parents want for their children? Parents
were quick to articulate their aspirations for their
children. Each of the most frequently expressed
aspirations are discussed below.
Their children to fulfil their personal potential
During the interviews, all parents indicated that
they wished their children could fulfil their personal
potential and follow the career path of their choice.
This was the strongest sentiment of any expressed
during the interview process.
I want my children to be empowered through their
education so they can be whoever they want to
I want my children to have freedom of choice so
they can choose a passion or interest that they
would like to follow. I hope that they can contribute
to society as positive citizens of society and live in
a way that adds value to whatever community they
To help their children achieve this, parents
were expecting schools to provide a diversity of
experiences in order to facilitate their children’s
I want the school to maximise his personal potential. I want them to consider who he is, and what he is capable of…whatever that is. Whether it is academics or sport or music or all of them.
Parents were particularly keen that students
reached their academic potential. Around half of the
parents interviewed, with children in high school,
linked academic performance with their children’s
ability to enter the workforce and follow their career
I want my child to academically succeed so that
they can have decent jobs and be successful in
whatever vocation they choose.
These comments relating to academic potential
are also reflected in the results from the school
choice questionnaire where parents were asked
to list their top school characteristics. When
ranked, characteristics like high level: quality of
teaching, student support and care, opportunities
for academically gifted students, academic quality,
opportunities for academically struggling students,
teacher competence in their field, and wide
curriculum choice, dominate the upper end of the list
indicating that parents saw these characteristics as
being most important.
A number of parents expressed concern about
the academic performance of some Christian
schools in their local region, and that this had heavily
influenced their choice of school.
Academic results of schools are really important,
particularly with respect to high school. Some
Christian schools do not have a good reputation
and generally have a poor level of academic
performance. We would never consider sending
our children to our local Christian School because
of poor academic standards as evidenced in
newspaper rankings and NAPLAN ranking on the
MY School website.
Our local Christian school has the potential but
is not fulfilling its potential. The subject selection
is too narrow for us to seriously consider it as an
Our local Christian school offers very limited academic and extracurricular choices and this is a major problem.
The parents perceived that any local Christian
school’s poor performance could be attributed to
a variety of reasons. These included a confused
strategic direction for the school, poor performance
of the Principal, a general lack of resources,
and poor quality of teachers at the school
due to high rates of teacher turn over and the
employment of young teachers who do not have
a lot of experience. These factors were perceived
reasons and the current study has not conducted
any research to determine the validity of these
What is clear is that the academic performance
of Christian schools is coming under increased
scrutiny. The Australian Government position has
encouraged this scrutiny and the My School website
has placed school performance in the public domain.
It would seem that there is an increasing number of
parents who are accessing this data to inform their
choice of school for their children.
The parents perceived their school of choice
was one that provided their child with a diversity
of experiences and enabled them to perform well
academically. While some parents rated their local
Christian school very highly, there was a large
amount of variation and not all parents rated the
local Christian school highly on its ability to help their
child achieve their potential.
Their children to be committed Christians
A clear majority of parents have aspirations for their
children to be committed Christians.
“What is clear
is that the
His spiritual life would be foremost consideration.
We want him to make his own choice about God
in his life, and place a relationship with Jesus as a
I want him to have a strong relationship with God
and that he knows what God chooses for him not
what I choose for him.
We want our children to know how much Jesus
loves them and they develop their own personal
relationship with Jesus and they end up serving
Him in some special way.
It is interesting that only about one third of the
parents interviewed expressed a desire for their
children to remain within their denomination.
We want our children to be Christians, our
denomination would be great but definitely
It may be that some of the parents felt that belonging
in their denomination was implied when they
articulated that they wanted their children to be
Christians, however, the overall impression from the
interviews was that parents would be happy for their
children to be practising Christians in a range of
faiths including their denomination.
Parents did not see the school as being solely
responsible for the faith development of their
children. Most parents expressed the opinion that
the main responsibility for the faith development of
their children rests with the home.
We don’t have an expectation that the school is
going to be the primary learning and teaching
facility with respect to the spiritual development of
our son because we believe that this is us. It is our
responsibility. The school needs to be supportive
but is not the primary means for that.
”faith development of children
Various studies have identified that the home, school
and church are the three institutions that impact the
parents were asked to rank these institutions in order
of importance to the faith development of children,
all parents placed the home first.
Opinion was divided almost equally as to the
position of the church and the school. Those parents
who ranked the church second recognised that
children started attending church from a young age
and most had a good peer group at church that
kept them focused on the church. These parents
recognised the importance of belonging to a
strong church community. Some parents however
lamented the declining importance of the church
in the lives of their children. Some put this down to
a range of
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a lack of strategic direction in the youth activities in
their area, and the fact that there did not seem to be
as many activities as there once was for youth and
often activities were poorly coordinated. Parents
who had their children in Christian schools that were
run by a denomination different to their own tended
to nominate the church as the next most important
influence on faith development after the family.
Parents who ranked the school next recognised
that their children spent a significant amount of time at
school, and were influenced by the dominant position
that their teachers had in their lives as authority
figures. Parents greatly appreciate the pastoral care
offered by schools and the way that schools can work
with children to nurture them and offer them counseling
and guidance in a way that is not always possible in the
home. For this reason a number of parents commented
that they appreciated teachers that care and took the
time to offer meaningful interaction with students.
I want the teachers in the school to be diligent
enough and passionate enough to take on any kid,
even if they are the troublemaker in the class.
One of my children was baptised early this year and
the school and the chaplains at the school had a big
influence on that decision.
Parents were particularly keen that the school
reinforced the beliefs and values of the home.
We were looking for a school where the values of
the home would be reinforced at the school.
This theme was repeated by about half of the
interviewees and most parents saw this as a very
important consideration when choosing a school for
Some parents wanted their children to be
socialised with other Christian children as this may
draw their children to the church. Families reflected:
Friendship groups heavily influence Church
attendance. If their friends are at church then my
children will keep going.
Our son is at a Christian school. He is socialised
with a group of boys where the general pull of the
group is towards the church whereas when he
was at his previous school he had a good group
of friends but they were not generally taking him
towards involvement with the Church.
We are concerned with the statistics concerning
young people transitioning into adulthood and
remaining passionate about church. For us this
means that a Christian school is the school of
choice for us.
Other parents worried that the school influence
may not always be positive as their children often
socialised with other children at the school who
come form other faith backgrounds or may not be
Christian. This major issue will be discussed more
under the section on the anxieties of parents.
Another set of parents felt that the Christianity
presented at school did not always represent the
faith tradition of the home, especially when the child
was in a school run by a different denomination.
We have found that there is not much different in
the spiritual content between various Christian
schools. There are some doctrinal differences
and these need to be recognised and managed.
We find that the differences allow us to explore
the grey areas with our children and are not
a major issue and offer us real teachable
Parents most often took one of three positions in
terms of factors that are important in ensuring their
children become committed Christians. Firstly, there
is a group who see a significant role for the family,
Church, and the church school. Secondly, there is
a group that sees the family and the church as the
significant factors. And, finally there is a group for
whom it is the family that is the significant factor. For
the latter two groups, this particular aspiration does
not automatically point them to a Christian school, or
if a Christian school, it does not have to be a school
run by their denomination.
Their children to be happy now, and to develop
significant self-efficacy and appropriate relationships
The majority of parents want their children to have
happy fulfilled lives. Many recognise that this is
usually the product of many factors but feel that the
school can make a significant contribution.
We want our children to be confident young people
who believe in themselves. We want the school to
give them guidance and for them to have teachers
who care about them.
We want our children to have a happy life, be
happy, be content.
We would like our kids to have a good family life,
believe in God, and be happy with what they are
Parents want their children to be nurtured by
teachers and fellow students.
We wanted somewhere where he would feel nurtured and the teachers take a lot of interest in the kids.
The way the students treated each other was very
important, even more so than academics.
In particular parents want children to be good
decision makers, and have the intelligence and
ability to make good decisions whether it be in
connection with a career, a life partner, or God and
build significant relationships with others.
The most important and most valuable for my
children is relationships.
Parents saw that their children needed to develop
into strong and confident young adults through their
I want my children to become self confident, young
adults who can make well-informed decisions and
not follow just anybody else.
Strong independent adults who can think for themselves without following the crowd and have a strong relationship with God. I want them to have a strength of character.
Their children and their family to be part of the
Several of the families interviewed indicated that they
not only hoped that their children would form good
friendships but they wished to be included as a family
in the greater school community. Many of the families
felt that they had been included in the primary school
community, when their children attended primary
school, and spoke highly of the experience.
The primary school our child attended is a very
small school it provides a real sense of community.
It is great.
Many of these families were involved in the parent
teacher associations and contribute to the extra
curricular program of the school.
Some families felt that having their children in
Christian schools provided them with an opportunity
to increase their friendship group. It gave them an
opportunity to mix with other Christians.
Community is very important. We like the idea of
being part of the community so we could meet
people that were not part of our church community.
Having our children in a Christian school allowed
us to get to know a lot of great Christian families.
These parents reported that they felt a great sense
of belonging to the school community as they were
included in a range of school based activities that
were easily accessed as most families lived fairly
close to their school.
For these parents the school of their choice
was one that provided an opportunity for them
and their children to become part of a wider
school community. It seems that this gives them a
sense of belonging and contributing to the school
program. There was a strong feeling that this had
been their experience when their children were in
primary schools but not always the case when their
children were a secondary school.
In summary, parents are looking to schools
to further the aspirations that they have for
their children. In particular the present study
revealed parents’ main aspirations were for
their children to fulfill their personal potential,
to be committed Christians, to be happy now,
and to develop significant self-efficacy and
appropriate relationships, and further for both their
children and themselves to be part of the school
As well as being influenced by their aspirations for
their children parents are also influenced by the
anxieties they have for their children’s future. When
interviewed about school choice, many parents
commented on a range of anxieties however there
was a large degree of agreement across parental
groups as indicated in the following discussion of
Their children may reject the church and be
negatively influenced by the wrong peer group
The greatest concern that parents have for
their children, shared by over half of the parents
interviewed, was keeping their children interested
in Christianity and having them remain as active
members in the church.
We are mainly concerned about involvement in
the church and staying in the church.
Their spirituality is one of my main concerns. We
don’t want them to feel as if we have pressured
them, but we want them to remain in the church.
The statistics from our church concerning young
people transitioning into adulthood and remaining
passionate about church are a worry.
”for those parents who had children in high school.
Most parents expressed a concern that their
children would only remain in the church if they had
friends in the church. This was a particular concern
The high school years concern me. A major issue
is peer group influence.
use of the
school as an
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The peer group is critical. Schools play a large
role in determining peer group.
I am concerned about my children hanging around the wrong kids and the effect of peer pressure.
Parents, with their children in Christian schools,
recognised that their children were building
friendship circles that included a peer group inside
and outside of the church.
The peer group of my children is a worry. The
school my children attend is a problem as not all
the kids are Christian.
Many of these parents were left relying on church
based activities such as youth groups and service
activities to facilitate the socialisation of their
children in the church and the establishment of a
peer group within the church.
It’s the youth group, Pathfinders and Storm Co
and remaining in touch and involved with some of
the positive influences the church does have.
Its through extra curricular activities for students
and service opportunities that students are
provided with positive peer group opportunities.
It seems that for many parents, active participation
in school and church events is the key to continuing
engagement with the church.
Our child is involved in a leadership role in her
school and gets involved in chapels and other
school activities which help her to be highly
focused on Church involvement.
Parents perceived that the school of choice
was one that would highlight the importance of a
Christian lifestyle and provide social interactions
with other Christians. Parents were concerned
that their children may be exposed to negative
peer influences by socialising with children from
different faith traditions. This raises the issue as to
the composition of the student body for Christian
schools. The results of this study have highlighted
the conflict between the strategic use of the school
as an evangelistic tool, where the enrolment of
nonChristians is at times encouraged, and parents
desire to have their children socialise with other
children who are active in their church.
Their children may be exposed to bullying
Nearly a quarter of the parents interviewed said
that they were anxious about their children being
bullied at school.
Our child had a bad experience being bullied for
being a Christian in a Christian school, with a lot of
the kids not being Christian. Moved her to another
Christian school that had a strong stand against
Cyber bullying is a big thing.
Parents expect schools to take a strong stand
against bullying and to protect students from
Their children may make the wrong lifestyle choices
Parents were anxious over future choices that
children would make. While some parents were
confident that their children would do the right thing,
others were not so sure. Of particular concern were
life style choices that involve drugs, their career
choice, and the life partner they would choose. They
wanted schools to nurture, support and mentor
children. They particularly appreciate the role of the
school chaplain in this process.
Schools play at important role in mentoring
children. We hope that the school offers Christian
values in a life style way and as a set of rules that
encourages greatness and not the boundaries.
Counselling and chaplaincy plays a really
Above all, parents are looking for schools to support
the home position.
Schools play a part but they really should only be
reflecting what we do at home. We can’t expect
schools to do it all. The home should be the
This study has provided more evidence that parents
perceive that the school of choice is one that guides
and mentors students in lifestyle choices that reflect
the value system of the home.
In summary, parents are looking to schools to
reduce the anxieties that they have for their children.
In particular the present study revealed parents’
main anxieties were that their children might reject
the church, be negatively influenced by the wrong
peer group, be exposed to bullying, and make the
wrong lifestyle choices.
This study has explored what motivates parents to
choose a particular school for their children. All too
often discussions on school choice are reduced
to discussions of parents’ preferred collections of
isolated school characteristics. This reductionist
view is often at the operational level, resulting in
educators focusing on a limited set of operational
characteristics that are deemed to be important.
This serves to limit the school choice discussion.
Other educators default to perspectives that they
‘grew up’ with and fail to appreciate the full potential
of a broader perspective. They often cling to
views that may be nostalgic and familiar but fail to
establish a contemporary understanding of parents’
motivations. The possibilities for their schools are
then limited to a narrow, often predefined, set of
Exploring a broader understanding offers
stakeholders a different perspective. It can enlarge
vision and allows educators to respond with a set
of actions that are often more contemporary and
mesh with parents expectations. There are benefits
for schools and school systems in the adoption of a
Parents have numerous considerations in
choosing a school. Rather than focusing on
individual school characteristics, this component
of the study has investigated the reasons behind
the importance of these factors and explored what
motivates parents in choosing a school for their
children. It seeks to understand the reasons behind
school choice. It found that most parents choose
a school with whom they felt they could form a
partnership to best enhance the aspirations they
have for their children and reduce the anxieties that
they have about their children’s future. It is not one
or two factors that significantly influence parents
when making school choices, but rather there is
an interplay between a range of factors that, in the
minds of parents, will best enable their aspirations
for their children to be achieved; at the same time
limiting the negative experiences to which their
children are exposed.
The logical consequence for schools is to
think about the possible futures that families
envisage for their children, and to take into account
parents’ motives including anxiety and aspiration.
Rather than concentrating on developing isolated
school characteristics to attract students, schools
should adopt a more wholistic approach to assure
parents that their child will have a high probability
chance of a good future, within a danger-reduction
Parents want their perception of best for their
children. They realise that their children’s school
plays an important role in their family’s future.
Parents have a choice of school for their children,
and because their children are so important to
them, they intended to exercise that choice. They
are motivated by wanting to give their children
a bright future, and in so doing, leave a lasting
legacy for their children and the people with whom
their children interact. Schools need to recognise
what drives parents and seek to offer them an
environment where their shared aspirations and
anxieties are adequately addressed. TEACH
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