Functionalist perspective


Education is important agency of socialisation- helps develop values, social harmony and social cohension. Education has key role in preparing young people for adulthood, citizenship and working life. Allows people to move upwards through social mobility

Four Main Functions 

  • Parsons - schools are important places of secondary socialisation provide a bridge between rules and values the apply to the family and those that apply to all members of society.
  • Passing on societies culture through the hidden curriculum, and building social solidarity.
  • Developing a well trained and qualified labour force, education makes sure the best and most qualified people end up in the right jobs (Schultz)
  • Davis and Moore see the educational system as a means of selecting people for different levels of the job market, ensuring the most talented and qualified individuals are allocated to the most important jobs (meritocracy)

Evaluation of the functionalist perspective

  • Can be contrasted with Marxist views that the culture and values passed on by the school are those of the ruling class, this does not promote social cohesion and legitimises inequalities.
  • Link between educational qualifications,pay and job status is weaker than functionalists assume. 
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New Right perspective

Marketing Schools 

Chubb and Moe argue that there should be a free market in education with a range of independently managed schools and colleges, run like businesses. This will lead to a more effective education system providing better value for money and a higher quality of education and a more skilled workforce.

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Marxist Perspective

Social Control

Marxists see education as a means of social control, encouraging young people to be conformists and to accept their social position. It therefore reproduces existing social class inequalities (Bourdieu).

Roles of Education

The main role of education in a capitalist society is the reproduction of an efficient and obedient labour force (Althusser).

The major role of education is the reproduction of labour power – a hard-working submissive and disciplined workforce. This is achieved through the hidden curriculum (Bowles and Gintis).

Evaluation of the Marxist 

  • There is a lack of detailed research supporting the ideas
  • Bowles and Gintis, ignore some influences of the formal curriculum. For example subjects like  humanities and sociology produce critical thinkers.
  • Employers often complain that the education system does not produce well qualified conformist workers. 
  • These ideas are deterministic, because they assume that people have no real ability to make choices or have control over what happens to them, and they don’t explain why many working class children are successful in education.
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Functionalist Perspective and Marxist Perspective

They both place too much emphasis on the role of education in forming students’ identity, and do not pay enough attention to the influence of other agencies on socialisation (such as the family or the media).

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Vocational education

Vocational education

  • is a means of preparing young people for work and making education meet the needs of the economy.
  • Functionalist and New Right see it as very beneficial to the economy.
  • Vocational education will produce a more skilled and flexible labour force so young people can get better jobs.
  • In Britain post 16 education and training have been expanded, there are more educational and government training courses  (NVQs, BTECs, apprenticeships) which are closely related to the world of work.


Marxists view vocational education as a second rate education for young people from working class backgrounds.

Training schemes often do not lead to a good job at the end. They are only used to reduce NEET (not in education, employment or training) 16-18 year olds, and keep young people away from crime.

Vocational education and qualifications lead to lower status and lower paid jobs as adults.

Birdwell et al (2011) secondary schools in England and Wales neglect pupils vocational aspirations, and focus on brighter children who are destined for higher education. Schools therefore fail to prepare teenagers for the world of work.

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Interactionist approach

Interaction in Schools

 Uses micro  studies to investigate what actually happens in the classroom.

It looks at factors and processes within schools and considers how these affect achievement and progress.

It looks at school ethos, the hidden curriculum, stereotyping, labelling, the halo effect, SFP, banding streaming and setting, educational triage, polarization and subcultures.

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School ethos and Hidden curriculum

School Ethos

A school ethos states the aims of the school and how they will be achieved.

Examples features are; all pupils whatever their ability should be rewarded, praised and encouraged to reach their full potential. Equal opportunities and the promotion of a multicultural education, and support for those with special educational needs. Parents are encouraged to be actively involved in their children’s learning

Hidden curriculum 

The ethos of the school is reflected and supported by the hidden curriculum.

An example of the hidden curriculum is asking pupils to line up outside of lessons which teaches them respect and discipline which in turn makes a better learning environment. 

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Rutter et al. (1979)

Conducted research in 12 schools. They suggest that features of the school’s organisation can make a difference on the life chances of all pupils. Examples of the key features were that:

  • teachers have high expectations of pupil’s academic performance
  • teachers set examples of behaviour; they are on time and use approved official discipline
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Teacher stereotyping, pupil identity and the Halo

  • Teacher student interaction can influence the construction or development of positive or negative pupil identities.
  • Teachers classify students as bright or slow learners, hard working or lazy and trouble makers or ideal pupils.
  • The stereotype that the teacher holds can produce a halo effect, where a teacher who has a good impression of a pupil for being helpful may also see them as more favourable in other ways.

Waterhouse (2004)

suggests that teacher labelling of pupils has implications for the way teachers interact with pupils and deal with them.

Becker (1971)

discovered that teachers initially evaluate pupils in relation to their stereotypes of the ‘ideal pupil’. Therefore all students are compared to this ‘ideal pupil’ stereotype. 

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Self-fulfilling prophecy

When a teacher constructions pupil identities they may lead to the self fulfilling prophecy. This is where pupils act in response to the predictions which have been made regarding their behaviour, thereby making the prediction come true. So if a child is labelled as deviant they will develop this identity as a bad student and will not achieve academically as a result.

Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968)

found that a randomly chosen group of students whom teachers were told were bright and could be expected to make good progress, even though they were no different from other student in terms of ability, did in fact make greater progress than students who were not so labelled.

The idea is deterministic and Fuller (1980) found that most black girls were subject to negative labelling, but some of them chose to reject the label and strived to prove the teachers wrong, which shows that free will is important and pupils can choose to defy the label.

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Banding, streaming and setting

Ways of grouping students according to their actual or predicted ability.

Students are divided into groups of similar ability and put in bands/streams. Then they are grouped in to sets of the same ability within these bands/streams.

Being placed in a low stream or set may undermine pupils’ confidence and discourage them for trying, and teachers may be less ambitious and give less knowledge to lower-stream children.

Ball (1981)

found that top stream students were ‘warmed up’  and encouraged to achieve and follow academic courses. Lower stream students were ‘cooled out’ and encouraged to follow lower-status vocational and practical courses, and achieved lower levels of academic success.

The Sutton trust (2010)

found that , setting was a good way of stretching bright pupils from poorer backgrounds, however not enough of them were reaching top sets. This indicates that other factors may influence achievement.

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Educational Triage

Gillborn and Youdell (2000) found that schools were dividing students in to three groups:

1. Those who they thought were most likely to get 6 A*-C grades with little help

2. Those on the C/D grade boundary who with a little help might get a C grade or better

3. Hopeless cases who were unlikely to get a C grade no matter what was done

Educational triage has increased due to government policy: the proportion of all pupils achieving A*-C grades at GCSE including English and Maths from 35% to at least 40% by 2012 and 50% by 2015.

Educational triage leaves students in lower bands behind and these students are likely to be working class.

New government policy hopes to reduce this and schools are now judged on the progress of all students.

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School subcultures

Pupils form subcultures in response to teacher stereotypes.

Subcultures share some values, norms and behaviour which give them a sense of group identity and belonging. 

Subcultures can be a response to differentiation and polarisation where the hard band students achieve and conform and the lower band students are labelled as failures.

The two main subcultures are pro school (hard working, conformist) and anti school (skipping lessons and being disruptive).

However Woods suggests that there is a wide range of possible responses and adaptations to school and therefore there are many subcultures in-between pro and anti such as opportunism where students try to gain teacher and peer group approval. 

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Evaluation of interactionist perspective of educat

They recognise the importance of what goes on in the schools and uncover meanings and motivations of behaviour

They are too deterministic and say that teacher stereotypes and labelling or banding and setting are key to your educational outcome but this is not always true (Fuller)

They do not consider factors outside of the school, such as the role of the family or cultural deprivation, which can have a huge impact on a child’s progress.

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Meritocracy in education

Functionalists believe that meritocracy does not always work and it can lead to inequality in education. For example in Britain class, gender and ethnicity can affect the opportunities students have even if they achieve good grades.

Marxists believe that Britain is not a meritocracy because education reinforces gender, class and ethnic inequalities.

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Social class and education

Social class can affect a child’s educational achievement.

 Waldfogel and Washbrook (2010) found that many children from disadvantaged backgrounds were already up to a year behind more privileged children educationally by the age of 3 – before many even start school.

External and Internal Factors 

External factors – factors outside of the school such as family or neighbourhood, over which the school has little control. These can be material or cultural explanations.

Internal factors – factors within the school, such as what happens inside the school and how this can affect the progress of pupils.

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Social class external factors: Material Factors

External factors can be cultural (where we live) or material (what we have)

Material factors:

Cooper and Stewart (2013)

found that poorer children have worse cognitive, social-behavioural and health outcomes because they have less money. This means they cannot afford books, food, trips etc.

In poor areas there are poor role models. Schools have discipline problems and there is a high turnover of teachers. 

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Social class external factors: Cultural factors:

Douglas (1964)

found that parental encouragement, expectation, interest and involvement in education links to how successful children are.

Middle class parents understand the education system better than lower class parents. And are better at advising their children and knowing how to stimulate learning outside of school.

Bernstein (1971)

there are two types of language use, elaborated code and the restricted code. Working class are more likely to use a restricted code and therefore may not understand teachers or textbooks.

Bourdieu suggests that middle class children have more cultural capital so will do better in education as they have seen the artworks and read the books they are learning about.

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Social class external factors evaluation

Cultural explanations pass blame on to the parents and home life and do not consider internal factors such as labelling.

Cultural explanations do not consider the fact that working class parents may be at work and unable to attend parents evenings but this does not mean that they are not supportive.

This research has led to the development of the educational action zones (excellence in cities) initiative which provides schools in poorer areas money, teachers and resources to help the children with their learning.

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Social class internal factors

Internal factors such as labelling, stereotyping, subcultures and the self-fulfilling prophecy are linked to social class and can affect educational progress.

For example if a child is from a working class background and their parents have manual jobs then they maybe labelled as less intelligent because of their family background.

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Social class internal factors evaluation

Internal research ignores the wider role of society in education, for example Marxists would argue that inequalities are due to the lower class not being able to access the dominant culture of the ruling class.

They are very deterministic, they assume all teachers label students and that these labels always lead to the self fulfilling prophecy. This is not always true (Fuller). 

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Gender and educational achievement

Statistics show that girls outperform boys in most GCSE subjects and more females stay on in higher education.There are differences in the subjects males and females choose which can affect their future careers. Women are less likely than men with similar qualifications to achieve similar levels of success in paid employment and men still hold the majority of positions in power.

Females and educational achievement

  • More women are having successful careers and feminism has led to greater emphasis in schools on equal opportunities.
  • The WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) campaign has aimed to inspire girls and to attract them into studying and following careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
  • Girls are growing up around good working female role models and there are a wider range of careers available. 
  • There is evidence that girls work harder and are better motivated than boys.

Males and educational achievement

  • There is some evidence that staff are less strict with boys, these lower expectations could create a SFP.
  • The male peer group does not see school work as having value and boys gain status by being aggressive and disruptive in class.
  • Forde (2006) suggests peer-group pressure encourages boys to maintain a dominant masculine identity.
  • Barber (1996) boys overestimate girls underestimate. Boys less effort and blame teachers for failing than themselves 
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Reasons for gender differences

Primary and secondary socialization influence subject choices. From an early age boys and girls are encouraged to play with different toys and do different activities.

Lobban (1974)

found gender stereotyping in children's books.

Career advisors and teachers may give advice based on their own socialization. Guiding boys towards more technical and science subjects and females towards more arts and humanities. 

Colley (1998)

suggested that the gender perceptions of different subjects are important influences on subject choice.

The schooling process reinforces gender identities, reinforcing the patriarchal control of males over females.

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Evaluation of gender differences

Jackson et al (2010) (feminists) feel that educational policy has ignored girls and has been exclusively concerned with boys’ underachievement. They suggest that there needs to be a focus on issues like how peer pressure and demands for femininity can be damaging to girls’ self concepts and social networks.

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Ethnicity and education


  • Chinese and Indian Asian pupils are more likely to achieve five or more A*-C grades.
  • Black Caribbean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Gypsy/Roma have lower levels of attainment compared to other ethnic groups.
  • Black Caribbean boys are the most likely to be permanently excluded.

Social class: Minority ethnic groups are more likely than white people to live in low income households and to be the poorest fifth of the population.

Language: EAL pupils often have lower attainment levels when starting school than those whose first language is English. However the DfES (2005) found that any impact of language declines as children get older

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Educational Policy; Before 2000's

Aims to develop the talents of young people to improve the skills of the labour force. Raise educational standards and make sure everyone has an equal chance at developing and earning qualifications.

Gillborn and Youdell (2000) all children should have equality of access, circumstance, participation and outcome.

1944=  Triparte System Free education, 11+ exam,(Tech//Sec// Gram)

1960’s= Ban 11+ exam for secondary + get rid of tech schools 

From 1980's= Conservatives= OFSTED inspections, Parentocracy, League tabeles, Schools Admission Code forbids schools discriminating according to ability, class, ethnicity and disability

Whitty (1998) middle class parents have an advantage in the educational market as they have more cultural capital. Ball (1995) the national curriculum is outdated.

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Educational Policy; After 2000's

1997-2010 Labour= Class sizes were reduced to 30 max, Numeracy and literacy hours were introduced, Education action zones were introduced in 1998 to raise standards in lower class areas

2010 onwards Coalition and Conservatives= Changes to the national curriculum with linear GCSE’s and A-levels no modular exams, Pupil premium allowed extra funding for disadvantaged students and Tuition fees were increased to £9000 per year which may affect disadvantaged students

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Policy evaluation

Some schools covertly select pupils for example Green, Allen and Jenkins (2014) found that free schools were selecting bright and wealthy pupils by discouraging parents from poorer backgrounds.

Over subscribed schools: if a school is over subscribed then priority is given to children who have brothers and sisters in the school, live in the catchment area, are of the specified faith and are eligible for pupil premium (disadvantaged).

School finances are not always accounted for.

 Money from private companies may not be reinvested in the education system. 

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Globalisation and educational policy

Marketization and privatisation of the educational system aim to improve the skills of UK students to enable them to compete in a global market.

International comparisons are often made between the UK and other countries to help inform educational policy and give information abut how pupils compare to those in other countries.

Surveys such as PISA are used to make these international comparisons they involve tests in mathematics, science and reading. The data are ranked to form league tables.

Alexander (2012) found examples of educational policy which have been influenced by international comparisons. 

  • 1998-2010 literacy and numeracy hours were introduced.
  • 2010-15 the national curriculum was slimmed down to focus on the core knowledge.
  • 2012 the entry requirements for trainee teachers were raised to be more like Finland.

These comparisons are based on a narrow range and do not take in to account cultural variations.

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Private education

Walford says that entry to public (private) schools ‘has been seen as a passport to academic success’.

Around 7% of the population choose to attend private schools. It can cost between £13, 500 to £35,000 a year.

People believe that these schools are better as they have smaller classes and better facilities. As such children have a better chance of getting in to the top universities.

Others are against private education as it is unfair and only those who can afford it can access the advantages. For example research has shown that some children in private schools get worse grades than those in state schools but still get better jobs. 

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