Social class differentials at the transition from lower to upper secondary education in France: Testing rational action models within an institutionalized dialogue between family and school
This paper analyzes the generation of social class differentials at the transition from lower to upper secondary education in France. While in other countries the crucial school track decision is either taken by the students and their parents or by the teachers, the families of French secondary students take part in an institutionalized dialogue with the school that mainly consists of three steps: First, the family formulates a school track request; second, considering this request, the staff meeting elaborates a school track proposition; third, the family can reject the staff’s proposition and if it does, it has to attend an obligatory talk with the headmaster. Based on this talk, the headmaster takes a binding school track decision. Legally, the dialogue can stretch even further, but due to small observation numbers, this paper concentrates on the first three steps of the dialogue and its final outcome.
In order to theoretically address social class differentials in families’ and the school staff’s choices along the dialogue I adapt well-known educational decision-making models based on rational action theory. Using a longitudinal data set on a large cohort of French secondary students who entered lower secondary school in 1995, I empirically test these decision-making models. My results primarily reveal: First, social background of students has an important impact on the three main steps of the dialogue and, hence, on its final outcome. Second, rational action theory explains a large part of the social background effect on families’ choices. Third, the school staff’s decision is strongly determined by family’s request and even produces social class differentials that go beyond those generated by families’ decisions. Fourth, parental involvement such as membership in a parent association has a remarkable effect on the families’ and the staff’s decision-making. It makes families more confident in demanding the higher school track even though the child concerned has rather low marks. At the same time, when a student has marks in the lower and middle range, the staff meeting is significantly more willing to accept the family’s request if the parents are involved.