Altarity: choosing schools, choosing identities in London

By Rona Hart

Thesis submitted

for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of Education and Professional Studies

King’s College London

October 2004


“The history of society and culture is, in large measure, the history of the struggle with the endlessly complex problems of difference and otherness. Never have the questions posed by difference and otherness been more pressing than they are today.

The issue of difference is undeniably political.  Is difference tolerable? Are others to be encouraged to express and cultivate their difference?  Or is difference intolerable? Are others who are different to be converted, integrated, dominated, excluded or repressed?

The Ghettos of Europe, America, and South Africa, the walls in Germany, China and Korea, and battlefields throughout the world testify to the urgency of the issue of difference.

A century that opened with the publication of “The Interpretation of Dreams” should have learned by now that the repressed never goes away but always returns – sometimes violently.

As we approach the millennium, the fires ignited in the ovens of Europe

threaten to encompass the entire globe. Holocaust is one response to difference…”        

(Taylor 1988:I).


This ethnographic study delineates the experiences of immigrant families living in London as they engage with local schools. The findings chapters of the dissertation explore issues of access, by following the parents as they enter London’s educational marketplace and as they choose a school for their children. The study portrays the process of educational choice from their perspective as newcomers, highlighting their positioning in the educational marketplace and the significance of their skills and resources as educational consumers.

The findings reveal eight types of capitals that these families draw on as they engage with the education market. These are: cultural properties, social resources, identities, symbolic assets,  psychological empowerment, cognitive capacities, economic means and statutory positioningThe analyses highlight the development that occurred in the choosers’ consumerist skills over time, suggesting that there may be a way to empower disadvantaged choosers to obtain improved positions as educational consumers.

 A central theme in this study is the occurrence of a communal pattern of schooling among this group of families.  Searching for the factors that occasion segregation in education, the focus of the research shifted to explore the role of the choosers’ networks.  The findings suggest that by using various control mechanisms, these networks engendered a continual pattern of schooling resulting in segregation and closure.

‘Choosing schools – choosing identities’ stands for the main argument of this study which states that the choice of school, as an act of consumerism, represents the choosers’ collective identities, and at the same time plays a significant role in reinventing these identities.


Table of contents

1.      Introduction: Setting the Scene

2.      Caught Between Two Cultures – Israeli Emigrants

3.      Core Theme: Social Capital

4.      Research Methods

5.      The Researched Community

6.      The Schools: Communal Patterns

7.      Setting the Stage, Aligning the Spotlights

8.       Brave New Immigrants: The Unsuspecting International Coosers

9.      A Balancing Act: The Quasi-Practiced Newcomers 

10.    Negotiating Terrains: The Competent Veteran Choosers

11.    Choosing Schools: An Exercise in Market-fitness?