The parents who heard it on the grapevine

Many parents rely more on an informal grapevine than official information when choosing a school, researchers have found.

Stephen Ball of King's College London and Carol Vincent of the University of Warwick discovered some parents discount information from schools.

Ball and Vincent's study was based on interviews with 172 parents selecting a secondary school. Nearly all said they drew on the experiences of friends, neighbours and relatives.

Ball and Vincent concluded there was little evidence that parents are making rational market choices. Social and educational change has made them panicky.

Stories, rumour and gossip all figured in the process which can destroy a school's reputation. As one parent said: "I know a lot of parents whose kids go there . . . and I don't want her having GCSEs in how to sniff glue and roll joints."

Parents see the grapevine as particularly useful in providing information on behaviour. "I talked to anybody, not so much about what exam results were like as whether the children are happy, and things like discipline and behaviour, how much litter there is, the state of the toilets," one parent said.

The research showed some try to ignore the grapevine and rely on their own instincts, others are sucked in almost against their will.

Middle-class parents tend to rely heavily on the grapevine while being aware of its fallibility. They understand the complexity of choosing a school and find the grapevine magnifies their anxiety. "It was a school gate nightmare, everybody was frantic," one said.

I heard it on the grapevine; "Hot" knowledge and school choice by Stephen J Ball and Carol Vincent.

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