The role and function of the education system

Functionalist perspective - Durkheim


  • Education is an entity creating social solidarity by transmitting society's norms and values, i.e. history is crucial in developing loyalty to society.
  • School is a 'society in miniature' - it prepares children for adult life.
  • Individuals are taught specialist skills so they can take their place within a highly complex division of labour.


  • Marxists argue education transmits a dominant culture which serves the interests of the bourgeoisie, not the values of society as a whole.
  • Hargreaves states schools no longer seek to create social solidarity; they are too concerned with exam results and success.
  • Willis' lads illustrate how students can reject the values of school and form anti-school sub-cultures.
1 of 12

Functionalist perspective - Parsons


  • Education acts as a 'bridge' between the home and wider society.
  • The child is treated tolerantly in the family and allowed a great deal of freedom, however, workers are judged by universalistic standards and have to conform to rules.
  • Education eases this transition, i.e. the examination system judges all students on merit.
  • Schools transmit the values of achievement and equality of opportunity - everyone achieves their own status through their own effort (meritocracy).


  • The education system is not meritocratic - private education and inequalities tied to class, gender and ethnicity challenge this view.
  • Wrong argues that Parsons has an 'over-socialised' view of people as mere puppets in society.  Pupils do not accept all that they are taught and reject values (Willis' lads).
2 of 12

Functionalist perspective - Davis and Moore

Davis and Moore

  • Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using exams (role allocation).
  • Talented students achieve high qualifications which lead to functionally important jobs with high salaries.
  • Education provides skills the economy needs, i.e. greater computer skills are required so schools now teach IT.


  • Intelligence and ability have a limited impact on educational achievement. Bourdieu argues that middle-class children are advantaged in education due to cultural capital.
  • Bowles and Gintis state education creates a 'myth of meritocracy' - wealthy children access high-paid jobs due to their background, not ability.
3 of 12

Marxist perspective - Bowles and Gintis

Bowles and Gintis

  • Education reproduces an obedient workforce who accept inequality as inevitable.
  • The 'hidden curriculum' dulls down the ambitions of working-class students whilst developing the potential of the middle-classes.
  • There is a close resemblance between schools and work (correspondence principle):-
    1. The hierarchy of students and staff symbolises the hierarchy of employees and employers.
    2. Rewards are extrinsic, not extrinsic - the only benefit of school is the qualification at the end of the course, similar to the paypacket at the end of the month.
    3. At school and work, subservience is rewarded and disobedience is punished.


  • Brown states that work now requires more teamwork rather than obedience to authority.
  • Macdonald accuses Bowles and Gintis of ignoring the fact that schools reproduce patriarchy as well as capitalism.
  • The theory was more relevant in the 1970s when there were more factory jobs.
4 of 12

Marxist perspective - Althusser


  • Education is an 'ideological state apparatus' - it legitimises (justifies) class inequalities by disguising ruling-class values as common values.
  • For example, pupils in Britain are encouraged to accept the benefits of private enterprise without question.
  • Working-class children are never taught to challenge the status quo - capitalism is portrayed as the only possible system.


  • Reynolds argues that education actually encourages critical thinking, schools teach psychology and sociology.
  • Education can actually harm the bourgeoisie - left-wing Marxists are university-educated, so clearly capitalism does not control the whole of the education system.
  • Giroux claims that the theory is too deterministic - pupils are not entirely moulded by the capitalist system and do not accept everything they are taught (Willis' lads).
5 of 12

Marxist perspective - Bourdieu


  • Middle-class students are at an advantage in education because they possess the right kind of 'cultural capital' (social assets).
  • For example, classical music and 'serious' literature is taught within schools as opposed to popular culture.
  • Middle-class families pass on cultural capital from parents to children (cultural reproduction).


  • Halsey found that material deprivation is more likely to prevent students from succeeding in education. 
  • Cultural capital is having a limited impact on the achievement of working-class students, the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the percentage of working-class students attending university is at an all-time high.
6 of 12

Feminist perspective - Heaton and Lawson

Heaton and Lawson

  • The hidden curriculum unofficially reinforces gender differences:
    1. School textbooks present males and females in traditional gender roles, i.e. women as mothers and housewives;
    2. A number of females feel uncomfortable studying certain subjects - for example, Culley stated in IT lessons boys take over and exclude girls;
    3. Some teachers still have sexist ideas, i.e. boys moving furniture and girls cleaning;
    4. Sport tends to concentrate on boys' successes and the choice of A-levels is still gender-specific;
    5. Lack of female role models - men seem to dominate the top positions in schools, i.e. headteacher and deputy headteacher.
7 of 12

Feminist perspective - strands of feminism

Strands of feminism

Liberal feminists argue that changes in education and equal opportunities policies are needed in order to eradicate patriarchy.  They believe the introduction of the National Curriculum has improved womens' experience of education because both sexes are studying the same subjects at school.

Radical feminists believe the only way to end patriarchy is to free women from the negative influence of men over women.  The classroom is seen to reinforce this patriarchal ideology.

Marxist feminists see the capitalist system at fault for socialising women into the home and men into the workplace.  Education reinforces these ideas.

8 of 12

Feminist perspective - criticisms


  • Feminism fails to consider how boys are often the subject of prejudice and negative stereotypes in school, for example, boys fail to take up certain subjects such as health & social care due to the stigma attached.
  • Norman points out that before children begin school, sex stereotyping has already begun, for example, girls are given dolls to play with and boys are given construction toys.
  • Feminists tend to ignore other important variables in girls' achievement, i.e. class and ethnicity
9 of 12

Neoliberal perspective - Chubb and Moe

Chubb and Moe

  • State education is unresponsive to the needs of pupils and parents, and tends to have low standards.
  • Private education has to please its customers (parents) in order to survive and therefore standards are high.
  • In the USA, children from low-income families in private schools achieve 5% more than those in state school.
  • They want to create an 'education market' where a school's role is to provide what its community wants and needs.


  • Neoliberals tend to emphasise profit and results over the welfare of students.
  • Although children and parents appear to be offered a greater choice of schools, this is an illusion because it is only available to those who can afford it.
  • Schools will want to maintain their place at the top of the league table, so will select those students who they see as most able (creaming). Such students are usually those from middle-class backgrounds.
10 of 12

Social democratic perspective - Halsey and Floud

Halsey and Floud

  • The tripartite system failed to deliver equality of opportunity.
  • The majority of working-class children attended secondary modern schools where they were offered a poor standard of education and failed to develop their full potential.
  • Middle-class students, however, attended grammar schools where standards were high.
  • As a result, the Labour government abolished the eleven-plus exam and chose to educate children in the same school irrespective of class, gender and ethnicity.


  • Despite the introduction of comprehensive schools, the gap in attainment between classes remains high.
  • Feminists argue social democratic policies concentrate too much on class inequalities and not enough on gender inequalities.
  • Neoliberals argue that greater equality in education can lead to lower standards; education becomes levelled down and able students cannot achieve their potential.
11 of 12

Postmodernist perspective - Usher


  • Education is developing to cope with the change from Fordism to post-Fordism.
  • As a result, we are seeing greater choice and diversity of types of school in education, i.e. faith, specialist and free schools.
  • Schools are increasingly focusing on individual's learning styles, using new forms of technology that are emerging.


  • Postmodernist theories fail to offer solutions for issues in education.
  • Postmodernists ignore the ways in which education may be shaped more by big business rather than by the needs and wishes of individual learners.
  • Haralambos and Holborn argue there is actually greater centralisation in education, i.e. the National Curriculum, rather than greater diversity and choice.
12 of 12


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Education resources »