The Role of Education

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  • Created on: 01-05-19 17:08

The functionalist perspective on education

Functionalism is a consensus view that sees society as being essentially harmonious. It argues that:

  • Society has basic needs, including the need for social order. To survive, society needs social solidarity through everyone sharing the same norms and values. Otherwise, society would disintegrate. 
  • Social institutions such as education perform positive functions both for society as a whole and for individuals, by socialising new members of society and by helping to create and sustain social solidarity.
  • Functionalism is a conservative view of society. 

The main contributors to the functionalist perspective on the role of education are Durkheim, Parsons, and Davis and Moore.

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Durkheim: solidarity and skills

According to Durkheim (1903), education performs two basic functions:

  • It promotes social solidarity without which society would fall apart. By transmitting society's shared culture (its norms and values), education binds people together and enables them to cooperate. Teaching a common history and shared rituals (such as singing the national anthem) is important to show pupils they share the same past and have a common purpose. Education also teaches children to follow univeralistic rules which are essential for cooperation in society.
  • Education prepares young people for work. Industrial societies have a specialised divison of labour which requires people to undergo often long periods of training for specific occupations. Education equips individuals with the specialist skills needed to participate in work in a modern economy.  
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Parsons: socialisation and meritocracy

Talcott Parsons (1961) argues that the school is the 'focal socialising agency' of modern society. 

Secondary socialisation During primary socialisation within the family, each child is treated differently - as someone who is 'special'. Wider society cannot function in this way - everyone has to be treated in the same way (e.g. all are equal before the law). Education teaches these universalistic standards and acts as a bridge between family and wider society. In particular, it socialises individuals into the shared values of a meritocratic society. 

Meritocracy A meritocratic society is based upon two key values: 

  • Individual achievement Everyone achieves their status through their own efforts and abilities. It is not where you come from but what you can do that gives you your position in society. 
  • Equal opportunity for every individual to achieve their full potential.

Society in miniature School is a miniature version of wider society - both are meritocratic. In school, individuals succeed or fail depending on their own ability and effort. This prepares them for life in modern society and its economy, which is competitive and individualistic. 

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Davis and Moore: role allocation

For Davis and Moore (1945), the main function of education is role allocation - the selection and allocation of individuals to their future work roles. They present a functionalist explanation of social stratification as follows: 

  • Some people are more talented than others.
  • Some work roles are more complex than others and require greater skill.
  • For society to function efficiently, the most talented individuals need to be allocated to most important jobs. 
  • Higher rewards are offered for these jobs to motivate everyone to strive for them.
  • A meritocratic education system allows everyone to compete equally. It 'sifts and sorts' individuals so that the most talented get the best qualifications and are allocated to the most important jobs. 
  • As a result, society is more productive because the most able people do the most important jobs. 

Human capital theory This is a similar idea to Davis and Moore's view. Modern industrial society is technologically advanced, so the skills of its workforce are its main economic asset or 'capital'. A meritocratic education system is the best way to develop a sufficiently skilled workforce and thus create greater economic efficiency and higher living standards. 

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Evaluation of functionalism

  • Marxists argue that the values transmitted by education are not society's shared values, but rather those of the ruling class.
  • Education is not meritocratic, because schools discriminate against some groups (e.g. working-class and black pupils) and don't give them an equal opportunity to achieve.
  • Hargreaves (1982) argues that schools place more value on competition and developing individuals than on developing a sense of social solidarity, as Durkheim claims. 
  • It is sometimes difficult to see a direct link between the subjects studied at school and what is required of workers in their jobs. Education doesn't necessarily equip people for future work roles. 
  • Interactionists argue that the functionalist view of socialisation is too deterministic. Not all pupils passively accept the school's values - some reject and rebel against them. 
  • A person's ascribed characteristics - their class background, gender and ethnicity - are more important in determining their income later in life than is their achievement in school. 

Most evaluation is presented through criticisms, but it's good to emphasise a theory's strengths too - e.g. 'It is difficult to argue against the need for social solidarity to keep a society of tens of millions of people together.

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Neoliberalism and the New Right perspective

Neoliberalism believes the state should not provide education. A free-market economy encourages competition and drives up standards. Schools should be more like businesses and operate in an education market. 

The New Right is more of a political than a sociological perspective. However, the New Right is of interest to sociologists because:

  • It is a more recent conservative view than functionalism. 
  • It has influenced educational policy in Britain an elsewhere.
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Functionalism and the New Right compared

New Right ideas are similar to those of functionalism:

  • 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 pupils 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 economic competition.  

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The market versus the state

One size fits all 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' that does not meet individual and community needs, or the needs of employers for skilled and motivated workers. 

Lower standards State-run schools are not accountable to those who use them - pupils, parents and employers - and so they are inefficient. 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. 

The solution: marketisation 

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 into areas run by the state (such as education or the NHS) of market forces of consumer choice and competition between suppliers (such as schools or hospitals). 

The New Right argue that creating an 'education market' forces schools to respond to the needs of pupils, 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 pupils.

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Chubb and Moe: giving the consumer choice

  • Chubb and Moe's (1990) data shows that pupils from low-income families do about 5% better in private schools. This suggests that state education is not meritocratic.
  • State education has failed to create equal opportunity because it does not have to respond to pupils' needs. 
  • Parents and communities cannot do anything about failing schools while the schools are controlled by the state.
  • Private schools deliver higher quality education because they are answerable to paying consumers - the parents. 

The solution - Chubb and Moe's answer to the supposed inefficiency of state schools is to introduce a market system in state education - that is, give control to consumers (parents and local communities). This should be done via a voucher system in which each family would be given a voucher to spend on buying education from a school of their choice. 

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Has the state any role in education?

Although the New Right want to reduce the state's role in education, they do still see a limited role for it:

  • The state should create the framework for competition between schools (e.g. by publishing league tables of exam results and by setting a national curriculum that all schools must teach).
  • The state still has to ensure that schools transmit society's shared culture through a curriculum that emphasises a shared national identity (e.g. through the teaching of British history).
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Evaluation of the New Right

  • Although school standards - as measured by exam results - seem to have risen, there are other possible reasons for this improvement apart from the introduction of a market.

The New Right view rests on their claim that state control is the cause of education's problems. If other factors are the real cause, the New Right argument falls apart. 

  • Critics argue that low standards in some state schools are the result from inadequate funding rather than state control of education. 
  • Gewirtz argues that competition between schools benefits the middle class, who can get their children into more desirable schools.
  • Marxists argue that education imposes the culture of a ruling class, not a shared culture or 'national identity' as the New Right argue.
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The Marxist perspective on education

Marxism is a conflict view that sees society as being based on class divisions and exploitation. Marxists argue that:

  • In capitalist society there are two classes - the ruling class (capitalists, or bourgeoisie) and the subject class (working class, or proletariat).
  • The capitalist class owns the means of production (land, factories etc.) and make their profits by exploiting the labour of the working class.
  • This creates class conflict that could threaten the stability of capitalism or even result in a revolution to overthrow it. 
  • Social institutions (such as the education system, the mass media, religion etc.) reproduce class inequalities and play an ideological role by persuading exploited workers that inequality is justified and acceptable.
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Althusser: the ideological state apparatus

Despite the inequalities in the system, capitalists are able to hold on to power because they control the state. Althusser (1971) claims the state consists of two elements which help to keep them in power:

  • The repressive state apparatus (RSA) When necessary to protect capitalist interests, the state uses force to repress the working class via the police, courts and army. 
  • The ideological state apparatus (ISA) controls people's ideas, values and beliefs. The ISA includes religion, the mass media and the education system. 

The education system performs two functions as an ISA:

  • Reproduction Education reproduces class inequality, by failing each generation of working-class pupils in turn and thereby ensuring that they end up in the same kinds of jobs as their parents. 
  • Legitimation Education legitimates class inequality by producing ideologies (sets of ideas and beliefs) that disguise its true cause. Education tries to convince people that inequality is inevitable and that failure is the fault of the individual, not the capitalist system. 
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Bowles and Gintis

  • According to Bowles and Gintis (1976), capitalism needs workers with the kind of obedient attitudes and submissive personality-type that is willing to accept hard work, low pay and authority. 
  • Like Althusser, they see the role of the education system in capitalist society as reproducing an obedient, exploitable workforce that will accept social inequality as inevitable and fair. To achieve this, successive generations of workers need these ideas firmly planted in their minds - and this is the function of the education system. 
  • Bowles and Gintis argue that there is a close correspondence between relationships in school and those found in the workplace. This similarity creates new generations of workers ready to accept their lot and serve capitalism.  
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Bowles and Gintis: the correspondence principle

According to Bowles and Gintis, schooling takes place in 'the long shadow of work'. The relationships and structures found in education mirror or correspond to those of work. In capitalist society, school is like work in many ways.

How school mirrors work:

School: Alienation - pupils' lack control over education

Work: Alienation through workers' lack of control over production

School: Hierarchy of authority: head > teachers > pupils

Work: Hierarchy of authority: boss > supervisor > workers

School: Extrinsic satisfaction (rewards) rather than from interest in the subjects studied

Work: Extrinsic rewards - pay, not satisfaction from the job itself. 

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Bowles and Gintis: the hidden curriculum

The correspondence principle operates throught the hidden curriculum - all the 'lessons' that are learnt in school without being directly taught. Through the everyday workings of the school, pupils accept hierarchy, competition, alienation etc. It becomes simply the normal way to think. 

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The myth of meritocracy: legitimating class inequa

The education system helps to prevent people from recognising their exploited position and rebelling against the system, by legitimating class inequalities. It does this by producing ideologies that explain why inequality is fair, natural and/or inevitable.

The education system creates many myths, including the 'myth of meritocracy'. Functionalists argue that education and the world of work are both meritocratic, because in their view everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve. Those who gain the highest rewards deserve them because they are the most able and hardworking. 

However, Bowles and Gintis argue that this is a myth. In reality, success is based on class background, not ability or education achievement. But by promoting the (untrue) claim that rewards are based on ability, the myth of meritocracy helps persuade workers to accept inequality and their subordinate position as legitimate. 

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Bowles and Gintis: Role allocation

Bowles and Gintis reject the functionalist claim that education allocates the most talented people meritocratically to the most important and best-rewarded roles. Their research found that it was obedient students who got the best grades, not those who were non-conformist or creative thinkers. That is, the education system rewards those who conform to the qualities required of the future workforce. 

Remember that you can use Bowles and Gintis' arguments in an answer to a question on functionalism, because they are important critique of functionalist claims that education is meritocratic. 

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Willis: learning to labour

Using qualitative methods, Willis (1977) studied the counter-school culture of 'the lads' - a group of 12 working class boys - s they made the transition from school to work. 

Willis rejects Bowles and Gintis's version of the correspondence principle. Rather than the lads passively accepting ruling-class ideology (such as the myth of meritocracy), he found that working-class pupils may resist attempts to indoctrinate them in school. They are able to partially see through the meritocratic ideology that claims working class pupils can get on through hard work. 

The counter-school culture The lads formed a distinct counter-culture that was opposed to the school. They flouted the school's rules (e.g. smoking, disrupting classes and playing truant). For the lads, such acts of defiance were ways of resisting the school's authority. 

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Willis: learning to labour

This anti-school counter-culture is similar to the shopfloor culture of male manual workers. The lads identify strongly with male manual work and this explains why they see themselves as superior both to girls and to the 'effeminate' ear'oles (conformist pupils) who aspire to non-manual jobs.

For Willis, the irony is that by resisting the school's ideology, the lads' counter-school culture guarantees that they will fail, thereby ensuring that they end up in the manual work that capitalism needs someone to perform. Thus, their resistance to school ends up reproducing class inequality. 

Rather than leaving all your evaluative points until the end, it's more effective to make them throughout your answer. As you explain part of the theory, add a critical point - so you pick up evaluation marks throughout. 

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Business and education

Some Marxists have claimed that recent educational policies in the UK make their analysis of the role of education even more relevant today.

  • Marketisation policies, the privatisation of some educational services, business sponsorship of state schools (e.g. academies) etc result in more direct capitalist control over education and training. 
  • Not only does the education system function to provide a willing workforce for capitalism, but increasingly it does so while making profits for capitalists. 
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Evaluation - how useful is the Marxist view of edu

Marxists have exposed the 'myth of meritocracy' and shown how education can serve the interests of capitalism by reproducing and legitimating class inequalities. However, sociologists from other perspectives are critical of the Marxist view:

Postmodernists argue that Marxism is out of date. The correspondence principle no longer operates or is at the very least too simplistic a view.

  • Postmodernists argue that class divisions are no longer important in a post-Fordist economic system that is now much more diverse and fragmented. 
  • They claim that where Marxists see inequality, there is really diversity and choice.
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Evaluation - how useful is the Marxist view of edu

Feminists argue that schools reproduce not only capitalism, but patriarchy too. McRobbie points out that females are largely absent from Willis' study. However, Willis' study has been the model for research into other educational inequalities, including gender, ethnicity and sexuality. 

Marxists disagree among themselves as to how reproduction and legitimation take place. Bowles and Gintis take a deterministic view and assume that pupils passively accept indoctrination. Willis rejects this simple 'brainwashing' view and shows how pupils may resist school and yet still end up in working class jobs. 

Evaluation isn't just about criticisms. Discuss strengths too - e.g.' Although Marxists have been criticised, they do highlight how education maintains class inequality'. 

Romanticisation Willis has been criticised for romanticising the 'lads', presenting them a working-class heroes despite their anti-social behaviour and sexist attitudes. His study of only 12 boys in one school is also unlikely to be representative. 

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