How Does Taste In Educational Settings Influence Parent Decision Making Regarding Enrolment?

Kathy Anne Bauer

Abstract


Introduction

Historically in Australia, there has been a growing movement behind the development of quality Early Childhood Education and Care Centres (termed ‘centres’ for this article). These centres are designed to provide care and education outside of the home for children from birth to five years old. In the mid 1980s, the then Labor Government of Australia promoted and funded the establishment of many centres to provide women who were at home with children the opportunity to move into the workplace. Centre fees were heavily subsidised to make this option viable in the hope that more women would become employed and Australia’s rising unemployment statistics would be reduced.

The popularity of this system soon meant that there was a childcare centre shortage and parents were faced with long waiting lists to enrol their child into a centre. To alleviate this situation, independent centres were established that complied with Government rules and regulations. Independent, state, and local government funded centres had a certain degree of autonomy over facilities, staffing, qualifications, quality programmes, and facilities. This movement became part of the global increased focus on the importance of early childhood education. As part of that educational emphasis, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians in 2008 set the direction for schooling for the next 10 years. This formed the basis of Australia’s Education Reforms (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations).

The reforms have influenced the management of early childhood education and care centres. All centres must comply with the National Quality Framework that mandates staff qualifications, facility standards, and the ratios of children to adults. From a parent’s perspective centres now look very much the same. All centres have indoor and outdoor playing spaces, separate rooms for differently aged children, playgrounds, play equipment, foyer and office spaces with similarly qualified staff.

With these similarities in mind, the dilemma for parents is how to decide on a centre for their child to attend. Does it come down to parents’ taste about a centre? In the education context, how is taste conceptualised? This article will present research that conceptualises taste as being part of a decision-making process (DMP) that is used by parents when choosing a centre for their child and, in doing so, will introduce the term: parental taste.

The Determining Factors of Taste

A three phase, sequential, mixed methods study was used to determine how parents select one centre over another. Cresswell described this methodology as successive phases of data collection, where each builds on the previous, with the aim of addressing the research question. This process was seen as a method to identify parents’ varying tastes in centres considered for their child to attend.

Phase 1 used a survey of 78 participants to gather baseline data to explore the values, expectations, and beliefs of the parents. It also determined the aspects of the centre important to parents, and gauged the importance of the socio-economic status and educational backgrounds of the participants in their decision making. Phase 2 built on the phase 1 data and included interviews with 20 interviewees exploring the details of the decision-making process (DMP). This phase also elaborated on the survey questions and responses, determined the variables that might impact on the DMP, and identified how parents access information about early learning centres. Phase 3 focussed on parental satisfaction with their choice of early learning setting. Again using 20 interviewees, these interviews investigated the DMP that had been undertaken, as well as any that might still be ongoing. This phase focused on parents' reflection on the DMP used and questioned them as to whether the same process would be used again in other areas of decision making.

Thematic analysis of the data revealed that it usually fell to the mother to explore centre options and make the decision about enrolment. Along the way, she may have discussions with the father and, to a lesser extent, with the centre staff. Friends, relatives, the child, siblings, and other educational professionals did not rank highly when the decision was being considered. Interestingly, it was found that the mother began to consider childcare options and the need for care twelve months or more before care was required and a decision had to be made. A small number of parents (three from the 20) said that they thought about it while pregnant but felt silly because they “didn’t even have a baby yet.”

All mothers said that it took quite a while to get their head around leaving their child with someone else, and this anxiety and concern increased the younger the child was. Two parents had criteria that they did not want their child in care until he/she could talk and walk, so that the child could look after him- or herself to some extent. This indicated some degree of scepticism that their child would be cared for appropriately. Parents who considered enrolling their child into care closer to when it was required generally chose to do this because they had selected a pre-determined age that their child would go into childcare. A small number of parents (two) decided that their child would not attend a centre until three years old, while other parents found employment and had to find care quickly in response.

The survey results showed that the aspects of a centre that most influenced parental decision-making were the activities and teaching methods used by staff, centre reputation, play equipment inside and outside the centre, and the playground size and centre buildings. The interview responses added to this by suggesting that the type of playground facilities available were important, with a natural environment being preferred. Interestingly, the lowest aspect of importance reported was whether the child had friends or family already attending the centre.

The results of the survey and interview data reflected the parents’ aspirations for their child and included the development of personal competencies of self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation linking emotions to thoughts and actions (Gendron). The child’s experience in a centre was expected to develop and refine personal traits such as self-confidence, self-awareness, self-management, the ability to interact with others, and the involvement in educational activities to achieve learning goals. With these aspirations in mind, parents felt considerable pressure to choose the environment that would fit their child the best.

During the interview stage of data collection, the term “taste” emerged. The term is commonly used in a food, fashion, or style context. In the education context, however, taste was conceptualised as the judgement of likes and dislikes regarding centre attributes. Gladwell writes that “snap judgements are, first of all, enormously quick: they rely on the thinnest slices of experience. But they are also unconscious” (50). The immediacy of determining one's taste refutes the neoliberal construction (Campbell, Proctor, Sherington) of the DMP as a rational decision-making process that systematically compares different options before making a decision.

In the education context, taste can be reconceptualised as an alignment between a decision and inherent values and beliefs. A personal “backpack” of experiences, beliefs, values, ideas, and memories all play a part in forming a person’s taste related to their likes and dislikes. In turn, this effects the end decision made. Parents formulated an initial response to a centre linked to the identification of attributes that aligned with personal values, beliefs, expectations, and aspirations. The data analysis indicated that parents formulated their personal taste in centres very quickly after centres were visited. At that point, parents had a clear image of the preferred centre. Further information gathering was used to reinforce that view and confirm this “parental taste.”

How Does Parental Taste about a Centre Influence the Decision-Making Process?

All parents used a process of decision-making to some degree. As already stated, it was usually the mother who gathered information to inform the final decision, but in two of the 78 cases it was the father who investigated and decided on the childcare centre in which to enrol. All parents used some form of process to guide their decision-making.

A heavily planned process sees the parent gather information over a period of time and included participating in centre tours, drive-by viewings, talking with others, web-based searches, and, checking locations in the phone book. Surprisingly, centre advertising was the least used and least effective method of attracting parents, with only one person indicating that advertising had played a part in her DMP. This approach applied to a woman who had just moved to a new town and was not aware of the care options. This method may also be a reflection of the personality of the parent or it may reflect an understanding that there are differences between services in terms of their focus on education and care.

A lightly planned process occurred when a relatively swift decision was made with minimal information gathering. It could have been the selection of the closest and most convenient centre, or the one that parents had heard people talk about. These parents were happy to go to the centre and add their name to the waiting list or enrol straight away. Generally, the impression was that all services provide the same education and care.

Parents appeared to use different criteria when considering a centre for their child. Aspects here included the physical environment, size of rooms, aesthetic appeal, clean buildings, tidy surrounds, and a homely feel. Other aspects that affected this parental taste included the location of the centre, the availability of places for the child, and the interest the staff showed in parent and child. The interviews revealed that parents placed an importance on emotions when they decided if a centre suited their tastes that in turn affected their DMP. The “vibe,” the atmosphere, and how the staff made the parents feel were the most important aspects of this process. The centre’s reputation was also central to decision making.

What Constructs Underpin the Decision?

Parental choice decisions can appear to be rational, but are usually emotionally connected to parental aspirations and values. In this way, parental choice and prior parental decision making processes reflect the bounded rationality described by Kahneman, and are based on factors relevant to the individual as supported by Ariely and Lindstrom. Ariely states that choice and the decision making process are emotionally driven and may be irrational-rational decisions. Gladwell supports this notion in that “the task of making sense of ourselves and our behaviour requires that we acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis” (17).

Reay’s research into social, cultural, emotional, and human capital to explain human behaviour was built upon to develop five constructs for decision making in this research. The R.O.P.E.S. constructs are domains that tie together to categorise the interaction of emotional connections that underpin the decision making process based on the parental taste in centres. The constructs emerged from the analysis of the data collected in the three phase approach. They were based on the responses from parents related to both their needs and their child’s needs in terms of having a valuable and happy experience at a centre. The R.O.P.E.S. constructs were key elements in the formation of parental taste in centres and eventual enrolment.

The Reputational construct (R) included word of mouth, from friends, the cleaner, other staff from either the focus or another centre, and may or may not have aligned with parental taste and influenced the decision. Other constructs (O) included the location and convenience of the centre, and availability of spaces. Cost was not seen as an issue with the subsidies making each centre similar in fee structure. The Physical construct (P) included the facilities available such as the indoor and outdoor play space, whether these are natural or artificial environments, and the play equipment available. The Social construct (S) included social interactions—sharing, making friends, and building networks.

It was found that the Emotional construct (E) was central to the process. It underpinned all the other constructs and was determined by the emotions that were elicited when the parent had the first and subsequent contact with the centre staff. This construct is pivotal in parental taste and decision making. Parents indicated that some centres did not have an abundance of resources but “the lady was really nice” (interview response) and the parent thought that her child would be cared for in that environment. Comments such as “the lady was really friendly and made us feel part of the place even though we were just looking around” (interview response) added to the emotional connection and construct for the DMP.

The emotional connection with staff and the willingness of the director to take the time to show the parent the whole centre was a common comment from parents. Parents indicated that if they felt comfortable, and the atmosphere was warm and homelike, then they knew that their child would too. One centre particularly supported parental taste in a homely environment and had lounges, floor rugs, lamps for lighting, and aromatherapy oil burning that contributed to a home-like feel that appealed to parents and children. The professionalism of the staff who displayed an interest in the children, had interesting activities in their room, and were polite and courteous also added to the emotional construct. Staff speaking to the parent and child, rather than just the parent, was also valued. Interestingly, parents did not comment on the qualifications held by staff, indicating that parents assumed that to be employed staff must hold the required qualifications.

Is There a Further Application of Taste in Decision Making?

The third phase of data collection was related to additional questions being asked of the interviewee that required reflection of the DMP used when choosing a centre for their child to attend. Parents were asked to review the process and comment on any changes that they would make if they were in the same position again. The majority of parents said that they were content with their taste in centres and the subsequent decision made. A quarter of the parents indicated that they would make minor changes to their process.

A common comment made was that the process used was indicative of the parent’s personality. A self confessed “worrier” enrolling her first child gathered a great deal of information and visited many centres to enable the most informed decision to be made. In contrast, a more relaxed parent enrolling a second or third child made a quicker decision after visiting or phoning one or two centres. Although parents considered their decision to be rationally considered, the impact of parental taste upon visiting the centre and speaking to staff was a strong indicator of the level of satisfaction. Taste was a precursor to the decision.

When asked if the same process would be used if choosing a different service, such as an accountant, parents indicated that a similar process would be used, but perhaps not as in depth. The reasoning here was that parents were aware that the decision of selecting a centre would impact on their child and ultimately themselves in an emotional way. The parent indicated that if they spent time visiting centres and it appealed to their taste then the child would like it too. In turn this made the whole process of attending a centre less stressful and emotional. Parents clarified that not as much personal information gathering would occur if searching for an accountant. The focus would be centred on the accountant’s professional ability. Other instances were offered, such as purchasing a car, or selecting a house, dentist, or a babysitter. All parents suggested that additional information would be collected if their child of family would be directly impacted by the decision.

Advertising of services or businesses through various multimedia approaches appeared not to rate highly when parents were in the process of decision making. Television, radio, print, Internet, and social networks were identified as possible modes of communication available for consideration by parents. The generational culture was evident in the responses from different parent age groups. The younger parents indicated that social media, Internet, and print may be used to ascertain the benefits of different services and to access information about the reputation of centres. In comparison, the older parents preferred word-of-mouth recommendations. Neither television nor radio was seen as media approaches that would attract clientele.

Conclusion

In the education context, the concept of parental taste can be seen to be an integral component to the decision making process. In this case, the attributes of an educational facility align to an individual’s personal “backpack” and form a like or a dislike, known as parental taste. The implications for the Directors of Early Childhood Education and Care Centres indicate that parental taste plays a role in a child’s enrolment into a centre. Parental taste is determined by the attributes of the centre that are aligned to the R.O.P.E.S. constructs with the emotional element as the key component. A less rigorous DMP is used when a generic service is required. Media and cultural ways of looking at our society interpret how important decisions are made. A general assumption is that major decisions are made in a calm, considered and rational manner. This is a neoliberal view and is not supported by the research presented in this article.

References

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Department of Education. 11 Oct. 2013. 14 Jan. 2014. ‹http://education.gov.au/national-quality-framework-early-childhood-education-and-care›.

Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). Education Reforms. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government Publishing Service, 2009.

Gendron, Benedicte. “Why Emotional Capital Matters in Education and in Labour?: Toward an Optimal Exploitation of Human Capital and Knowledge Mangement.” Les Cahiers de la Maison des Sciences Economiques 113 (2004): 1–37.

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Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011.

Lindstrom, Martin. Buy-ology: How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy is Wrong. Great London: Random House Business Books, 2009.

Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. 14 Jan. 2014. ‹http://www.mceecdya.edu.au/mceecdya/melbourne_declaration,25979.html›.

National Quality Framework. 14 Jan. 2014. ‹http://www.acecqa.gov.au.

Reay, Diane. A Useful Extension of Bourdieu’s Conceptual Framework?: Emotional Capital as a Way of Understanding Mothers’ Involvement in their Children’s Education? Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

 


Keywords


parental taste; decision making; early childhood



Copyright (c) 2014 Kathy Anne Bauer

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