Functionalism: Views on the role of education

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Functionalism: Views on the role of education

The functionalist perspective believes that education is an agent of socialisation (to promote value consensus)
Functionalist writers argue that education is a positive force in today's society and that it benefits both individuals and society as a whole.

Education has three broad functions:

  • Socialisation 
  • Skills Provision
  • Role Allocation
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Durkheim + Evaluation

  • Education is a crucial agency of socialisation because it is central to the reproduction of culture and therefore society
  • Subjects like History, English and Religious Studies were vital as they promoted a pride in a shared culture, sense of belonging and a sense of social solidarity. 
  • Schools transmit general values which promote social integration and specific skills which support a specialised division of labour.


The idea of a nation state sharing a single culture and a single set of values seems unlikely in an increasingly globalised world. Multi-cultural societies are too fragmented and diverse to be shaped into a single identity based on value consensus.

David Hargreaves:

Education in modern Britain does not act in the way described by Durkheim. Modern British schools fail to transmit shared values that promote social solidarity. Instead they stress individual competition via the exam system.

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Parsons + Evaluation

  • Within the family, the child is treated in terms of particularistic standards, rather than judging them in terms of standards that can be applied to every individual.
  • The role of education is to promote value consensus around the basic shared values of society, these are the universalistic values (individualism, competition, equality of opportunity and meritocracy).
  • The education system allocates people to future roles within the economy through testing and evaluating students and matching their talent and skills to the jobs they are most suited to.


Education is not effective at grading people in terms of their ability and skills. There is evidence that social stratification prevents the education system from allocating individuals efficiently.

Bowles and Gintis:

Challenge the view that there is a value consensus around achievement and equality of opportunity. These are the values of the ruling class and workers are socialised into them to promote the myth of meritocracy.

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Davis and Moore + Evaluation

  • Also saw education as a means of role allocation, but they linked the education system more directly with the system of social stratification.
  • Social stratification is a mechanism for ensuring the most talented and able members of society are allocated to the positions that are functionally the most important for society.
  • Educational mechanisms such as grades, examinations and qualifications are used to sift and sort individuals into hierarchical layers based on intelligence and ability  
  • They regard society as meritocracy underpinned by equality of opportunity in which people are rewarded for intelligence, ability and effort.

Sutton Trust:

Wealth buys educational advantage. Private school pupils are 25 times more likely to gain a university place than state school pupils with the same A-level grades


The working class (due to lack of cultural capital) are eliminated from the system via examination failure or more likely self-elimination. Hence Bourdieu concludes that the major role of education is the social reproduction of existing class inequalities.

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Key Words

  • Value Consensus - most of the people in a society share the same core values
  • Social Solidarity - sense of belonging in a shared culture
  • Role Allocation - matching students' talent to jobs they are most suited to
  • Equality of Opportunity - everyone having the same opportunities in life
  • Meritocracy - everyone has an equal chance and starts in the same place
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