The revelation in a three-year study comes the day after the Prime Minister announced more league tables - this time for seven- and fourteen-year- olds - as part of the Conservatives' vote-winning strategy for the general election.
Research from the Economic and Social Research Council looked at how parents of 231 pupils chose state and private primary and secondary schools in inner and outer London boroughs.
It found clear class differences in how parents used league tables. Families where fathers were in professional jobs were much more likely to understand the tables than those from lower down the social scale. The former were also more likely to realise that the tables reflected the differing intakes of schools and not just how well a school was teaching its pupils.
John Major said last Tuesday that the Government would publish league tables of national curriculum test results for seven and fourteen-year- olds in addition to those already published for 11-year-olds and for GCSE and A-level.
Dr Anne West of the Centre for Educational Research at the London School of Economics, one of the researchers, said: "The report highlights the problem of finding a way of providing information about schools that is accessible to all parents as many are confused about what league tables are supposed to represent."
Her research, carried out with Professor Miriam David of South Bank University, shows that parents have a hierarchy of schools, based on a wish to keep their pupils safe from undesirable influences.
"Some types of school are perceived to be a safe option - for example, private, selective, girls' or church schools - while others imply greater risk," the report says. The research found that parents saw working-class boys as the main social threat. The child's happiness comes top of the list of reasons for choosing a school among parents of both primary and secondary pupils, although parental notions of happiness differ.
One mother who had put down her son's name before birth at the famous public school attended by his father and grandfather said that the two most important factors affecting her choice were her son's happiness and that the school should suit his needs.
Fathers take the responsibility for choosing a primary school in only 3 per cent of cases, although those with children attending private schools are more likely to be involved.
About 65 per cent of parents of children at private schools said that class size had been important in choosing a school.
The most startling contrast between state and private schools was found in homework. Only 4 per cent of children at state primary schools had more than 30 minutes homework a night while all those at private primary schools did. But, the study suggests, the lighter homework demands in state schools may have a positive spin-off: children at state primaries were more likely than their private-school counterparts to write stories at home.Reuse content