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According to Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederick Engels (1820 – 1895) power in society largely stemmed from wealth.  In particular, those who owned the means of production (the things needed to produce other things such as land, capital, machinery and labour power) formed a powerful ruling class.  They were able to exploit the subject class (those who did not own the means of production and therefore had to work for the ruling class).


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 Economic systems


According to Marx, society passed through several eras in which different economic systems or modes of production were dominant.  In each of these there was a different ruling class and subject class.  In the latest stage, capitalist society, the ruling class were wealthy factory owners (the bourgeoisie) and the subject class were the working-class employees (the proletariat).  In capitalism the proletariat was exploited by the bourgeoisie because they were not paid the full value of the work that they did and the bourgeoisie kept some surplus value or profit.

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The economic base and superstructure

The power of the bourgeoisie derived from their ownership of the means of production.  The means of production forms the economic base or infrastructure of society.  Because they controlled the economic base, the bourgeoisie were able to control the other, non-economic institutions of society (which make up the superstructure), such as the media, government, religion, the family and education.

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Louis Althusser – the role of ideology

  • Althusser sees the education system as part of the ideological state apparatus.  He claims that education, along with other ideological state apparatuses such as the family and the mass media, reproduce class-based inequalities by creating the belief that capitalism is somehow ‘normal’, ‘natural’ and ‘just’.
  • The effect of all this is that is the reproduction of the class system in that the sons and daughters of the working class tend to remain working class
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Bourdieu - cultural capital

  • Like other Marxists, Bourdieu argues that the main function of education is to reproduce and legitimize ruling class culture and power.  Another important function of education is to socialize the working class into a ‘culture of failure’ so that they take up, without question, routine and dull work.
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Bowles and Gintis: Capitalist schooling

Bowles and Gintis (1976) argue that education is controlled by capitalists and serves their interests.  There is a close relationship between schooling and work, because schooling is used to prepare children for working in capitalist businesses. The correspondence principle states that education corresponds to employment.

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The hidden curriculum

Capitalism requires a hard-working, obedient workforce that will not challenge the management.  Bowles and Gintis believe that education prepares such a workforce through the hidden curriculum.  This works in the following ways:


·        Conformist pupils are awarded higher grades than those who challenge authority or think creatively

·        Schools teach acceptance of hierarchy, since teachers give the orders and pupils obey

·        Pupils are motivated by the external rewards of exam success just as workers are motivated by wages

·        Both work and education are fragmented, or broken into small pieces, so that workers and pupils have little overall understanding of production or society.  This keeps them divided.

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Bowles and Gintis see the idea of meritocracy as a myth and, in reality, class background as determining how well a person does.  However, because people believe that the education system is meritocratic, this legitimates the system, making it seem fair

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3. Neo-Marxist perspective of education


Neo-Marxism is a term used to describe new versions of Marxism.  They are new (neo) because they disagree in some way with the original writings of Karl Marx, while still being strongly influenced by them.


Giroux – Neo-Marxism, struggle and relative autonomy

An example of neo-Marxism applied to education in the work of Henry Giroux (1984).  He disagrees with the conventional Marxist approach of Bowles and Gintis (see previous pages) in three ways:

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1.      Working-class pupils do not passively accept everything they are taught, but actively shape their own education and sometimes resist the discipline imposed on them by school.

2.      Schools are sites of ideological struggle for different classes, ethnic, religious and cultural groups.  Capitalists have more power than any other single group but they do not have all the power.

3.      The education system possesses relative autonomy from the economic base; that is, it has some independence and is not always shaped by the needs of the capitalist economy.

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Paul Willis:  Learning to labour

The most influential neo-Marxist study of education is an ethnographic study of a group of boys (or ‘lads’) in a Midlands comprehensive school in the 1970s.  Paul Willis (1977) conducted the study using interviews, observation and participant observation in the school.


·        The ‘lads’ saw themselves as superior to staff and other pupils

·        They were not interested in getting academic qualifications

·        They aimed to do as little work as possible while entertaining themselves through bad behaviour

·        They were unhappy at being treated as children and identified more with the adult world.

They formed a counterculture, which was sexist (looking down on women) and racist (looking down on ethnic minorities). 

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Willis followed the lads into their first jobs, often in factories.  He found a shop-floor culture similar to the counter-school culture, which:

·                    Was racist and sexist

·                    Had little respect for authority


Workers did as little work as possible and tried to enjoy themselves through, ‘having a laugh’.  They developed ways of coping with boring work over which they had little control.  Paul Willis argues that to some extent the lads saw through the capitalist system, perceiving that they had little chance of progressing through hard work in education to well-paid or high status jobs.

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However, he also saw that their actions led them into jobs where they were exploited by the ruling class.


Evaluation of Willis

  • Blackledge and Hunt (1985) put forward some criticisms of Willis:
    • His sample is inadequate for generalizing about the role of education in society. His sample contained 12 pupils, all of them male, who were by no means typical of the children at the school
    • Willis largely ignores the full range of subcultures within schools. Many pupils fall somewhere in between total conformity and total rejection.
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Functionalist, Marxist and neo-Marxist perspectives are all based on specific sociological theories, but some views of the relationship between education and society are based more on political ideologies and associated social policies relating to the education system.  Two such approaches are the social democratic and New Right perspectives.  Social democratic perspectives are more left wing (in favour of greater equality and greater state intervention in the economy) and the New Right are more right wing (in favour of competition and free markets).

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From this perspective, governments should play a major role in providing welfare through the state for its citizens in order to promote the well-being of members of society.  Society produces inequality of income and wealth, which creates inequality of opportunity.  Those from advantaged backgrounds tend to do better in the education system.


The role of the state should be to make opportunity more equal and society more meritocratic.  In a meritocracy, success and failure in education and in the labour market are based on effort and ability.


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Social democratic perspectives influenced Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s.  They were opposed to the tripartite system in which pupils went to one of three types of school:


·        Grammar schools, which provided an academic education for those who had passed the 11+ exam

·        Secondary modern schools, which provided a more vocational education

·        Technical schools, for those with technical ability


Grammar schools were selective, taking only higher-ability pupils.  Social democrats believe this system was divisive because most pupils in grammar schools were from middle-class backgrounds, whereas most in secondary modern schools were from working-class backgrounds.

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Social democratic policies

The Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s partly replaced the tripartite educational system with comprehensive schools which all pupils attended.

The intention was to:

1.                  Get rid of class divisions between different types of schools

2.                  Create more equal opportunities

3.                  Encourage economic growth by ensuring that talent was not wasted through taxation and welfare policies in which the rich were more heavily taxed than others (progressive taxation), and welfare was provided to the less well-off so that they did not live in poverty.

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Evaluation of the social democratic view

·        To provide the type of education that social democrats want is too costly.  Taxes would have to rise.

Comprehensives did not bridge the gap between the classes.  Setting and streaming still reinforced the differences

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The New Right (also sometimes called neo-liberals or market liberals) are opposed to the views of social democrats.


New Right ideas are similar to those of functionalists:


·        They believe that some people are naturally more talented than others.

·        They agree with functionalists that education should be run on meritocratic principles of open competition.

·        They believe that education should socialise students into shared values and provide a sense of national identity.


In addition, the New Right believe that older industrial societies such as Britain are in decline, partly as a result of increased global competition.

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·        A key feature of New Right thinking (not found in functionalism) is that too much state control of education (as well as other areas of social and economic life) has resulted in inefficiency, national economic decline and a lack of personal and business initiative. A culture of welfare dependency has developed, the cost of which has reduced investment in industry.

·        New Right arguments are based on the belief that the state cannot meet people’s needs. In a state-run education system, education inevitably ends up as ‘one size fits all’ tat does not meet individual and community needs, or the needs of employers for skilled and motivated employees.

·        State-run schools are not accountable to those who use them – students, parents and employers. Schools that get poor results do not change because they are not answerable to their consumers. The result is lower standards and a less qualified workforce.

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·        For the New Right, the issue is how to make schools more responsive to their ‘consumers’. In their view, the solution is the marketisation of education. Marketisation is the introduction of market forces of consumer choice and competition between suppliers (schools) into areas run by the state (such as education and health).

·        The New Right argue that creating an ‘education market’ forces schools to respond to the demands of students, parents and employers. For example, competition with other schools means that teachers have to be more efficient. A school’s survival depends on its ability to raise the achievement levels of its students.

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In summary the New Right believe:


·        Private enterprise, based on competition between businesses, is the most efficient system for running any service.

·        Services provided by the state tend to be inefficient.  This is because the producers have no incentive to work hard since, unlike business, there is no competition.

·        There are no customers paying for the service, meaning that state education is unresponsive to its customers.

·        Competition is essential to raising standards, which is vital if the UK is to produce the highly educated adults who are necessary to compete in the global economy.

·        The main focus of education should be on training the workforce.

·        Training the workforce requires a new emphasis on vocational education.


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New Right policies

The New Right perspective on education influenced the policies of the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1997.  The main features of these policies were:

·        They introduced market forces and competition between educational institutions.

·        Schools competed for pupils, and unpopular schools lost money.

·        Greater choice was introduced with new types of schools such as grant-maintained schools funded directly by the government.

·        The National Curriculum, league tables, regular inspections and frequent testing were all designed to drive up standards in order to make the UK more economically competitive.


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Chubb and Moe: consumer choice

Chubb and Moe (1990) argue that the lower classes have been badly served by state education as it has failed to create equal opportunity. They also argue that state education is inefficient because it fails to produce pupils with the skills needed by employers.  Private schools deliver higher quality education because, unlike state schools, they are answerable to paying consumers – the parents.

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Chubb and Moe carried out a survey of parental attitudes to schooling.  This was a large scale questionnaire containing a fixed list of questions about the way in which schools should be run.  The results from the studied showed that parents wanted a greater say in their child’s education.  Chubb and Moe also found that children from low income families did consistently better in private rather than state schools.


Chubb and Moe support the New Right perspective on education. They argue that the introduction of a market system in state education is necessary to improve standards and efficiency.  The control of educational establishments would be put in the hands of the consumer (e.g. parents).

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Evaluation of New Right

1.      Competition between schools only benefits the middle class, who can use their economic and cultural capital to gain access to more desirable schools.

2.      The real cause of low educational standards is not state control but social inequality and inadequate funding of state schools.

3.      Money will be spent on marketing rather than facilities and equipment.

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  • Some feminists argue that the ‘hidden curriculum’ unofficially reinforces gender differences.
  • There are still gender differences in subject choice in schools and gender stereotyping still exists. 
  • Girls now outperform boys at school, but boys still demand more attention from the teacher.
  • Men seem to dominate the top positions in schools (deputy head and head teacher) and even more so in universities.


Liberal feminists want equal access to education for both sexes.  Radical feminists believe men are a bad influence and want female-centered education for girls.  Whereas Marxist feminists want to consider gender inequalities of class and ethnicity

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alicia kapica

Is it a conflict theory?

Hayley Northwood

Marxism? Yes

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