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All in the Mix: Race, Class, and School Choice

reviewed by Eleni Filippatos & Amanda U. Potterton - November 29, 2021

coverTitle: All in the Mix: Race, Class, and School Choice
Author(s): Bridget Byrne and Carla De Tona
Publisher: Manchester University Press,
ISBN: 0719091152, Pages: 191, Year: 2019
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In All in the Mix: Race, Class, and School Choice, Bridget Byrne and Carla De Tona examine the perceptions and influences of parents choosing secondary schools for their children in three areas of Greater Manchester, United Kingdom (hereafter, U.K.): Cheadle Hulme, Chorlton, and Whalley Range. The authors conducted fieldwork and semi-structured interviews with families of children in the process of transitioning to secondary school, seeking to understand parents’ and caregivers’ conceptualizations of available choices (or lack thereof), particularly at the intersections of spatial location, race, and class. The book contributes new parental perspectives to school choice literature, with interview respondents ranging in ethnic background, socioeconomic class, and geographic location. The authors present similarities and differences amongst the participants’ perspectives.

The book is organized with an introduction, five main chapters, and a conclusion (the sixth chapter). The introduction describes the research setting, provides a brief history of education and the state (related to government in the U.K.), and outlines the book’s structure. Chapter 1 offers a contextual background, review of relevant literature, and a theoretical framework for the research. In Chapter 2, Byrne and De Tona provide details about methods and the settings of the three Manchester “more-or-less” (p. 44) suburbs, and they include descriptions of the settings from the participants’ perspectives. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 examine findings of their study, which are related to the families’ sense of limited choices, fears, and anxieties associated with school choice, and the complex role of policies around multiculturalism and parents’ discussions about ethnic diversity alongside families’ choices.

In Chapter 1, “Unequal Choosing,” Byrne and De Tona describe some of the school choice reforms in the U.K. Although terminology differs from that often heard in the United States when talking about school choice policies and reforms, parallels can be drawn between the two choice landscapes for readers who are otherwise unfamiliar. For instance, “free schools” and “academies” emerged as government-funded schools that are run independently through the U.K.’s central government and outside of local authorities, similar in some ways to U.S. charter schools. The concept of “free schools,” wherein Byrne and De Tona explain how, in 2011, consumers (for example, parents, faith groups, and other stakeholders) had the opportunity to become consumer-producers, was less far-reaching than the academies that spread in popularity in the U.K. (Academies are different from free schools in a number of ways, one being that they usually already existed as secondary schools and have been converted.) The authors note that, while reforms increased, the playing field was not equal for all families. Specific themes raised in this chapter highlight the importance of understanding school choice experiences as both racialized and classed.

Chapter 2, “Imagining Places,” addresses geophysical aspects of school choice experiences and the sometimes entangling aspects of classed identities that manifest through residential moves. This chapter describes the research sites, including through the words of participating parents, and uncovers how, in some instances, “...the question of choice is exercised before children are considered” (p. 41) or, in other words, without consideration of which school their child might attend. On the other hand, Cheadle Hulme is a middle-class neighborhood uniquely characterized here as a place participants moved to explicitly for the “better” area and schools. Chorlton, although also characterized as middle-class and mostly white, is perceived culturally diverse by some interviewees who lived there. Finally, in Whalley Range, home to a larger number of ethnically diverse immigrants than the other two areas, some participants were hesitant to openly discuss class, and the area was noted as more of a working-class neighborhood. This chapter effectively highlights some distinct differences of class and race that shape each area and establishes the ethnically and socioeconomically diverse group of participants interviewed.

Chapter 3, “Choice, What Choice?”,  identifies a major finding from the research: many of the parents and caregivers felt that secondary school choices were limited. For some families, limitations stemmed from the ruling out of choices deemed unacceptable for their children before engaging in the choice process. For others, the possibility of private and grammar schools was worrisome for financial, ideological, or social reasons (for example, the fear of not fitting in). This was the case for some parents in Cheadle Hulme, who were concerned that their children might not “...fit into these affluent middle-class contexts which were characterised by high cultural and social capital” (p. 72). Interestingly, earlier in Chapter 2, one parent describes living in Cheadle Hulme as “middling” (p. 50), as if negotiating the space between the working and middle classes, and in this chapter we see that tension. Geographical location and availability of schools served as barriers to school choices. When describing choice-making processes, some parents and caregivers revealed their underlying preferences for the type of children their own child would be surrounded by, including “disciplined” (p. 103) children and those who come from similar backgrounds.

In Chapter 4, “Schooling Fears,” Byrne and De Tona explain that the stresses and anxieties related to school choice consistently expressed by parents were again, explicitly or implicitly, classed, racialized, and even gendered. They were also connected to social and political values. At the intersection of primary and secondary schooling, parents’ and caregivers’ worries spanned from hormonal changes, newfound independence, travel to and from school, bullying, to negative social influences. For example, some parents referred to clothing, hairstyles, or different lifestyles when describing undesirable schools.

One of the contributions that this book provides, in our opinion, is the methodological choice to include a sample of participants from different backgrounds and in different geographical locations. In Chapter 5, “Evaluating the Mix: Negotiating with Multiculture,” the authors summarize this well:

...this book is distinct from much of the literature on school choice and ethnicity because it is able to consider the choice talk of both white and ethnic-minority parents across a range of class positions and in different geographic areas where the ethnic make-up of both the relevant primary and secondary schools and the wider areas are known. (p. 133)

“The mix” the authors discuss refers not only to the mix of factors influencing parents’ and caregivers’ choices, but also to the recurrent language of finding a “good mix” of multicultural students at a given school. When problematizing the word “mix,” the authors also refer to Reay et al.’s (2011) scholarship that explains how this term can be misleading by referring to social backdrops rather than actual social mixing.

For example, while white families tended to welcome diversity, there was also a shared fear of becoming the minority and not being around enough people that were like them. Byrne and De Tona gave examples of some parents’ overestimations of ethnic diversity, and some felt that expressions and celebrations of multiple cultures was “…the trope of ‘political correctness’” (p. 149). Indeed, these views remind us of some similar arguments from parents in the U.S. about what is or what they think should be in public school curricula (see, as examples, Koruth, 2021; Schneider & Berkshire, 2021). In Byrne and De Tona’s book, some parents who were minoritized shared a desire to surround their children with ethnically diverse peers, with one also describing concerns about making sure that their children did not become “…too much of a minority” (p. 140). There were desires to protect their children from racism.

In the final chapter, “Conclusions,” Byrne and De Tona argue that the nature of school choice conversations is rooted in social and relational spaces. They conclude that decisions parents make are intertwined with race, class, gender, and religion. At the crossroads of primary and secondary school, students transition academically and mature into young adults. The authors found that parents—regardless of ethnicity or class—experienced anxiety about this transition, as pressures surmounted to learn amongst the right “mix” of peers. Notably, and reminding us again of Reay et al.’s (2011) explanation of the potentially misleading use of the term “mix,” families in varying contexts all shared the sentiment that their schools were diverse and contained a “good mix.”

All in the Mix provides insight into how parents position school choice in classed, racialized, and sometimes gendered discourses. While school choice policy rhetoric is centered around equity and educational opportunities, Byrne and De Tona conclude that “Thinking about potential schools not only involves considering the standards of teaching and the subjects and facilities on offer but also frequently includes the assessment of the other children (and their parents) in the schools” (p. 155). This research is helpful for understanding the impacts of school choice on the economic and racial segregation that prevails in our schools. Byrne and De Tona explore the spoken and unspoken social norms that contribute to parents’ school choice processes. Whether choice policies aim to promote equity is irrelevant if this does not play out in practice. All in the Mix paints the picture of parents and caregivers engaging in school choice in a way that reinforces racialized and classed social constructions of schools, places, and students.


Koruth, M. A. (2021, October 25). Critical race theory emerges as a fiery issue. Daily Record. http://ezproxy.uky.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/critical-race-theory-emerges-as-fiery-issue/docview/2585237049/se-2?accountid=11836

Reay, D., Crozier, G., & James, D. (2011). White middle-class identities and urban schooling. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230302501

Schneider, J., & Berkshire, J. (2021, October 21). Parents claim they have the right to shape their kids’ school curriculum. They don’t. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/parents-rights-protests-kids/2021/10/21/5cf4920a-31d4-11ec-9241-aad8e48f01ff_story.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 29, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23918, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:11:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Eleni Filippatos
    University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    ELENI FILIPPATOS is a New York City public school teacher of English as a New Language (ENL) and a Ph.D. student in Educational Leadership at the University of Kentucky. Her research interests include racial segregation in schools, school choice policies, and equity of access to choice initiatives for marginalized populations. She is particularly interested in studying the role of elementary school leaders in supporting English Learners and their families in New York City’s middle school choice processes.
  • Amanda U. Potterton
    University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    AMANDA U. POTTERTON, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. Her research and teaching interests include the politics of school choice, educational leadership, charter schools, privatization and public education, and the justice-related implications of these policies for students living in poverty, for students with special education needs, and for students who are English language learners. Amanda’s current research agenda focuses on how public school stakeholders, including parents, students, teachers, school leaders, and other community members, interpret and experience school choice policies and practices in local settings. Prior to pursuing her Ph.D., she was a New York City Teaching Fellow and taught special education in New York City, and she was a teacher and school leader in the United Kingdom. Amanda holds a PhD in Educational Policy and Evaluation from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University.
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