The role of education

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1. Equal opportunities policies

The belief that boys and girls should have the same opportunities in school  are now part of mainstream thinking. Policies such as GIST and WISE encourage girls to pursue careers in non-traditional areas.  Similarly, the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 meant that boys and girls had to study the same things.

  • Jo Boaler argues that equal opportunities policies are a key factor in the improvement of girls educational performance.  Schools have become more meritocratic which means that because girls in general work harder than boys, they achieve more.


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2. Internal factors

While factors outside the school may play an important part in explaining gender differences in achievement, factors within the education system itself are also important.  These include:


  1. Equal opportunities policies
  2. Positive role models in schools
  3. GCSE and coursework
  4. Teacher attention
  5. Challenging stereotypes in the curriculum
  6. Selection and league tables


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Explanations for girls’ improvement in achievement

4. Girls’ changing ambitions


  • The view that changes in the family and employment are producing changes in girls’ ambitions is supported by research.
  • For example, Sue Sharpe compared the results of interviews she carried out with girls in the 1970s and girls in the 1990s.  In the 1970s girls had low aspirations, saw educational success as unfeminine and gave their priorities as love, marriage, husbands and children before careers.  In the 1990s, however, girls were more likely to see their future as independent women with a career, rather than being dependent on a husband and his income.


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2. Positive role models in schools

In recent years, the proportion of female teachers and female headteachers has increased.  As such, women in positions of power and authority have acted as important role models for girls because they show girls that it is possible for them to achieve important positions.  This then reinforces the importance of education in gaining such positions.

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3. GCSE and Coursework

Some sociologists have argues that changes in the way students are examined have favoured girls and disadvantaged boys.  the gender-gap in achievement increased after the introduction of GCSEs and coursework in 1988.

  • Mitsos and Browne argue that girls are more successful in coursework because they are better organised and more conscientious than boys.  They found that girls tend to spend more time on their work, take more care on its presentation, and are better at keeping to deadlines. All of this helps girls to benefit from the introduction of coursework in GCSE, AS and A level.


Although coursework has some impact on results, Elwood notes that exams have more influence on final grades, so the introduction of coursework had only a limited effect on gender differences in achievement.

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4. teacher attention

  • Research suggests that teachers respond more positively to girls than boys.  This is because teachers see girls as more co-operative and boys as more disruptive.  This may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which positive interactions raise girls’ self-esteem and levels of achievement
  • Barber  found that teacher-pupil interactions were very significant.  For girls, feedback from teachers focused more on their work rather than their behaviour; for boys the reverse was true.  Research by Abraham (1995) suggests that teachers perceive boys as being more badly behaved than girls in the classroom, and as such expect bad behaviour. 


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3. GCSE and Coursework

Some sociologists have argues that changes in the way students are examined have favoured girls and disadvantaged boys.  the gender-gap in achievement increased after the introduction of GCSEs and coursework in 1988.

  • Mitsos and Browne argue that girls are more successful in coursework because they are better organised and more conscientious than boys.  They found that girls tend to spend more time on their work, take more care on its presentation, and are better at keeping to deadlines. All of this helps girls to benefit from the introduction of coursework in GCSE, AS and A level.


Although coursework has some impact on results, Elwood notes that exams have more influence on final grades, so the introduction of coursework had only a limited effect on gender differences in achievement.

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Explanations for girls’ improvement in achievement

3. Changes in women’s employment


  • There have been some important changes to women’s jobs in recent years.  The proportion of women in employment has risen from under 50% in 1959 to over 70% in 2007.  Some women are breaking through the invisible barrier of the ‘glass ceiling’ to high level professional jobs previously denied them.  These greater opportunities provide an incentive for girls to take education seriously.
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Explanations for girls’ improvement in achievement

2. Changes in the family


  • There have been a number of major changes to the family in the last 30 years.  Some of these include an increase in the divorce rate, an increase in cohabitation, and an increase in the number of lone-parent families (mainly female headed).
  • These changes are affecting girls’ attitudes towards education in a number of ways.  For example, increased numbers of female-headed lone-parent families may mean more women need to take on the major income-earner role.  This then creates a new financially independent, career-minded role model for girls.  The need for good qualifications is made very clear.
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2. Banding, Setting and Streaming

  • They found that teachers tend to have lower expectations of working class students, deny them access to higher level knowledge and tend to enter them for lower level examination tiers.
  • Campbell (2001) argues that subject setting advantages middle class students in the top sets because research evidence suggests their attainment increases, while working class students in the bottom sets do not increase their attainment at the same rate or to the same level. 
  • Stephen Ball (2003) refers to setting as social barbarism because it allows well-off parents to separate their children from ‘others’ whom they consider socially and intellectually inferior.  He points to overwhelming research evidence that shows that grouping by ability leads to greater social class inequalities between children. 
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2. Banding, Setting and Streaming

  • A number of studies by Ball, Hargreaves and Lacey have looked at the effects of ability grouping in secondary schools.  In general they found a tendency for middle class students to be placed in higher groups and for working class students to be placed in the lower groups.


In questions on differences in achievement, you need to apply this by noting that working class students end up in lower streams and sets and middle class students end up in higher ones because of teacher labelling, thus widening the achievement gap between the classes.

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  • Cruder versions of labelling theory are rather deterministic in suggesting the inevitability of failure for those with negative labels attached to them.  For example, Margaret Fuller found that the black girls in her study resisted the attempt to label them as failures by devoting themselves to school work in order to be successful.
  • Marxists also criticise labelling theory for ignoring the wider structures of power within which labelling takes place.  They argue that labels are not merely the result of teachers’ individual prejudices, but stem from the fact that teachers work in a system that reproduces class divisions.



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3. Marketisation and selection policies

  • Marketisation policies and greater use of selection have created a much more competitive climate among schools.  In this light, middle class students are seen as more desirable recruits as they achieve better exam results.  Conversely, working class students are seen as ‘liability students’ which are barriers to efforts by schools to climb the league tables. 
  • According to Bartlett, marketisation leads popular schools to ‘cream-skim’  higher ability students and ‘silt-shift’ lower ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds into unpopular schools who are obliged to take them for funding reasons.
  • Gilborn and Youdell argue that the publication of school league tables creates what they call the ‘A*-C economy, in which schools channel most of their efforts into those students who are likely to get 5 or more GCSEs at grades A*--C. This produces a system of educational triage in which working class students are seen being lower ability and therefore ‘hopeless cases’. This produces a self-fulfilling prophecy and failure.


If a question asks about factors in schools, focus on labelling, the self-fulfilling prophecy and streaming. If it asks about factors in the educational system, discuss policies as well.

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3. Gender and Achievement - patterns and trends

  1. Both girls and boys are doing better.  Over the last 50 years the educational performance of boys has steadily improved.  The performance of girls has risen at a faster rate at some levels and in some subjects.  As Coffey (2200) suggests, this hardly justifies labelling all boys as underachievers.
  2. Only some boys are failing.  There is a close link between boys underachievement and social class.  Epstein et al show that, compared to other groups, a high proportion of working class boys are failing.
  3. Hiding girls’ failure.  The pre-occupation with so-called failing boys’ diverts attention from underachieveing girls.  Research by Plummer suggests that a high proportion of working class girls are failing in the school system.
  4. Not just gender.  Gender is one of a range of factors which contribute to underachievement.  It is important to note the dynamic influence of class and ethnicity.
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Explanations for girls’ improvement in achievement

1. The impact of feminism

  • Since the 1960’s feminism has challenged the traditional stereotypes of a woman’s role as mother and housewife within a patriarchal family.  More broadly, feminism has raised girls’ expectations and ambitions with regard to careers and family.

  • These changes are partly reflected in media images and messages. A good illustration of this is McRobbie’s comparison of girls magazines in the 1970s and 1990s. In the 1970s girls’ magazines stressed the importance of getting married, whereas in the 1990s they emphasised career and independence.

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Explanations for girls’ improvement in achievement

1. External factors


External (outside school) factors which may explain the improvement in girls’ achievement include:


  1. The impact of feminism
  2. Changes in the family
  3. Changes in women’s employment
  4. Girls’ changing ambitions and perceptions
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5. Challenging stereotypes in the curriculum

  • Some sociologists argue that removing gender stereotypes from treading schemes, textbooks and other learning materials has removed a barrier to girls’ achievement.
  • Gaby Weiner argues that since the 1980s, teachers have challenged gender stereotypes.  Also, in general, sexist images have been removed from teaching materials.  this may have helped to raise girls achievement by presenting more positive images of what women are capable of.


Link ideas together – e.g. you can connect the removal of stereotypes to equal opportunities policies and the impact of feminist ideas on education.

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6. Selection and league tables

  • Marketisation policies and greater use of selection have created a much more competitive climate among schools.  In this light, girls are seen as more desirable recruits as they achieve better exam results.  Conversely, boys are seen as ‘liability students’ which are barriers to efforts by schools to climb the league tables.
  • David Jackson found that the introduction of exam league tables, which place a high value on academic achievement, has improved opportunities for girls.  This tends to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy in which girls are more likely to be recruited by good schools and are therefore more likely to do well


Girls are now achieving more, but radical feminists argue that the education system remains patriarchal, e.g. sexual harassment of girls’ continues at school; education limits their subject choices and careers; secondary school heads are still more likely to be men.

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Explanations of gender differences in subject choi

3. Gendered subject images

  • Alison Kelly identifies two main reasons why science tends to be seen as masculine. The way science subjects are packaged makes them appear to be ‘boys’ subjects.  The examples used in textbooks and by teachers tend to be linked to boys’ experiences such as football  and cars
  • Students themselves make the greatest contribution to turning science into a boys’ subject.  Boys dominate classrooms, shouting out answers and grabbing apparatus first.


4. Peer pressure

  • Peer pressure can influence subject choice in terms of gender domains.  for example, boys tend to opt out of dance and music because others will perceive these subjects to be outside the mail gender domain and apply negative pressure.
  • Similarly, Paetcher points out that pupils see sport as being firmly inside the male gender domain and will therefore label girls as ‘butch’ or even ‘gay’ if they show too much interest in sports.
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Explanations of gender differences in subject choi

 1. Early socialization:

  • Murphy and Elwood argue that early difference in gender socialization leads to boys and girls having different tastes in reading and these can lead to differences in subject choice.  Boys tend to read hobby books which develops an interest in the sciences, whereas girls tend to read stories about people which leads to interests in English.

2. Gender domains:

  • According to Browne and Ross, gender domains are the tasks and activities that children see as male or female territory.  Children tend to be more confident in engaging in tasks which they see as part of their gender domain.  For example, in a maths task, boys will be more confident tackling a problem related to cars, whereas girls might prefer a task related to health or nutrition.
  • This could explain why girls are attracted to arts and humanities subjects and boys prefer sciences.
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  • Weiner, Arnot and David(1997) are somewhat sceptical about the sudden discovery of male underachievement.  They argue that the media have created a misleading moral panic which exaggerates and distorts the extent and nature of any problem. 
  • They argue that although the media are also interested in the underachievement of white, middle class boys they see black and working class underachievement as a particular problem because it is likely to lead to unqualified, unemployable black and working class men turning to crime. 
  • Cohen (1999) argues that the question is not ‘why are boys underachieving’, but ‘why boys’ underachievement has now become an object of concern?’ 
  • Her answer is that it is not just the destruction of the industrial base of Britain; nor is it the result of pressure put on men by feminism, or by girls’ superior achievement in recent years. 
  • It is because discussions about achievement, academic success and attainment all have boys as their main object.  The call for a new focus on boys is not new, but merely perpetuates the historical process which has always assumed boys to have special potential which has not been fully developed.  Their underachievement has always been protected from scrutiny. 


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Education and gender identities

Pupils’ experiences of school can affect their gender identities through:

  1. verbal abuse
  2. male peer groups
  3. teachers and discipline
  4. the male gaze 

These experiences help to reinforce what Connell calls ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – the dominance of heterosexual masculine identity and the subordination of female and gay identities.


1. Verbal abuse

  • According to Connell boys use name-calling to put girls down if they behave in certain ways.
  • Paetcher found that name-calling helps to shape gender identities and male dominance.  The use of negative labels[a1]  such as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ are ways in which pupils can control each others sexual identities.



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Education and gender identities

2. Male peer groups

  • Mac an Ghaill shows how peer groups reproduce a range of different working class masculine identities.  For example, the ‘macho lads’ in his study were dismissive of other working class boys who worked hard and achieved. 

3. Teachers and discipline

  • Hayward found that male teachers told boys off for ‘behaving like girls’ and teased them when they achieved lower marks than female students. 

4. The male gaze

  • Mac an Ghaill refers to the ‘male gaze’ as a way of looking girls up and down and seeing them as sexual objects.  he argues that the male gaze is a form of surveillance through which dominant masculinity is reinforced and femininity devalued.  This is achieved, for example, through telling stories of sexual conquest


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External (outside school) explanations

1. Cultural factors and attainment


a) Language


  • In some Asian households English is not the first language used. The PSI study found that lack of fluency in English was a significant problem for some groups. Amongst men nearly everyone spoke English fluently. Amongst women about a fífth of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were not fluent.


  • However, Gillborn and Mirza (2000) point out that the very high attainment of Indian pupils suggests that having English as an Additional Language is not a barrier to success
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Ethnicity and achievement

Some patterns and trends


Patterns of ethnic achievement are complex, cross-cut by gender and class. For example,


  • Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi students do worst, Indians and Chinese do best.
  • White students are very close to the national average, but this is because they the great majority of the school population.
  • Among black and working class students, girls do better than boys, but among Asians, boys do better than girls.
  • Working class black girls do better than working class white girls.


When answering essay questions on ethnicity and achievement, refer to the achievement patterns of a range of different ethnic groups.

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Internal factors

3. Laddish subcultures 

  • Some sociologists argue that the growth of ‘laddish’ subcultures[a1]  has contributed to boys’ underachievement.
  • Mac an Ghaill  examines the relationship between schooling, work, masculinity and sexuality. He identifies a particular pupil subculture, the ‘macho lads’  which could help to explain why some boys underachieve in education.
  • This group was hostile to school authority and learning, not unlike the lads in Willis's study. Willis had argued that work especially physical work ‑ was essential to the development of a sense of identity. By the mid‑1980s  much of this kind of work was gone. Instead, a spell in youth training, followed very often by unemployment, became the norm for many working‑class boys.
  • Jackson found that laddish behaviour was based on the idea that it is uncool to work hard at school.  She found that boys based their laddish behaviour on the dominant view of masculinity – they acted tough, messed around, disrupted lessons and rejected schoolwork as ‘feminine’.


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Internal factors

2. Teacher interaction 

  • Teacher-pupil interactions were identified by Barber as being very significant.  For girls, feedback from teachers focused more on their work rather than their behaviour; for boys the reverse was true.  The low expectations of girls in science reinforced their own self-images; boys frequently overestimated their abilities.
  • Negative teacher labelling for some boys undermined their confidence and interest in school.  For both boys and girls, where motivation in a subject is low, achievement tends to be low.
  • Teachers may tend to be less strict with boys, giving them more leeway with deadlines and expecting a lower standard of work than they get from girls.  This can allow boys to under-achieve by failing to push them to achieve their potential
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Explanations for the underachievement of boys

There are a range of reasons why boys are underachieving compared to girls: 

1. External factors (outside-school) 

  • Boys’ poorer literacy skills
  • The decline of ‘traditional’ male jobs
  • Unrealistic expectations 

2. Internal factors (inside-school) 

  • The feminisation of education
  • Teacher interaction
  • ‘Laddish’ subcultures
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Explanations for the underachievement of boys

  • Mitsos and Browne (1998) believe that boys are under-achieving in education, although they also believe girlsare disadvantaged. 
  • The evidence of boys' under-achievement, according to Mitsos and Browne, is that:
    • Girls do better than boys in every stage of NationalCurriculum SAT [Standard Assessment Tests] results inEnglish, maths and science, and they are now more successfulthan boys at every level in CCSE, outperforming boys in everymajor subject ... except physics. 
  • Atkinson and Wilson’s (2003) research shows that the gap between boys’ and girls’ achievement at school grows between 7 and 16.  Their study of 500,000 children shows that despite boys outperforming girls in maths and science in early schooling, by the age of 16 girls were achieving higher results in both subjects.
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External factors

1. Boys’ poorer literacy skills


  • Some evidence suggests that girls are more likely to spend their leisure time in ways which compliment their education and contribute to educational achievements.  Mitsos and Browne place considerable emphasis on reading.  Women are more likely to read than men, and mothers are more likely than fathers to read to their children.  Girls are therefore more likely to have same-sex role models to encourage them to read.
  • As such, poor language and literacy skills are likely to affect boys’ performance across a wide range of subjects
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External factors

2. The decline of traditional male job 

  • The decline in male manual work may result in working class boys lacking motivation.  Mitsos and Browne argue that this decline in male employment opportunities has led to a crisis of masculinity.  Many boys now believe that they have little chance of getting a proper job.  This undermines their self-esteem and motivation and so they give up trying to gain qualifications.
  • However, while their may be some truth in these claims, it should be noted that the decline has largely been in traditional manual working class jobs, many of them unskilled or semi-skilled.  Traditionally, many of these jobs would have been filled by working class boys with few if any qualifications.  It therefore seems unlikely that the disappearance of such jobs would have much of an impact on boys’ motivation to gain qualifications.
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Internal factors

1. The feminization of education


  • According to Tony Sewell boys fall behind in education because schools have become feminised.  This means that schools tend to emphasise feminine traits such as methodical working and attentiveness, which disadvantages boys.
  • Sewell sees coursework as a major cause of gender differences in achievement.  He argues that some coursework should be replaced with final exams and a greater emphasis should be put on outdoor adventure in the curriculum.
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External factors

3. Unrealistic expectations


  • Research indicates that boys are often surprised when they fail exams and tend to put their failure down to bad luck rather than lack of effort.
  • Becky Francis points out that boys are more likely to have career aspirations that are not only unrealistic but often require few formal qualifications, e.g professional footballer.  Girls’ aspirations, however, tend to require academic effort, e.g. doctor, and therefore they have a commitment to schoolwork.


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Functionalist theories of education

Functionalism is a consensus theory which 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 fall apart.
  • Social institutions such as education perform positive functions for both society and for individuals, by socializing new members of society and by helping create and sustain social solidarity.
  • Functionalism is a conservative view of society.  Functionalists tend to focus on the positive contribution education makes to society.          


A very effective way to start an answer on the role of education is to outline the main assumptions of the theory under consideration

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1. Labelling

  • One of the most important aspects of the interactionist approach to education concerns the ways in which teachers make sense of and respond to the behaviour of their pupils. 

  • In a study of an American kindergarten Rist found that it was not ability which determined where each child was seated, but the degree to which the children conformed to the teacher's own middle class standards.  In other words, the kindergarten teacher was evaluating and labelling pupils on the basis of their social class, not on the abilities they demonstrated in class. 

  • Gillborn and Youdell found that teachers are more likely to see middle class students as having the ability to enter higher level exams.  This is based more on the teachers’ perceptions of what counts as ability rather than the students’ actual ability.  The result is discrimination against many working class students who are denied the opportunity to attempt to obtain the higher grades.
  • As such,  all this research suggests that teachers tend to expect more from middle class students, and are more likely to convey their expectations to them and act in terms of it.  The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby teachers expectations of students future behaviour and attainment will tend to come true.
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Functionalism and the New Right compared

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.


When dealing with a question on functionalist views of the role of education, bring in the New Right too – their arguments are in some ways an extension of the functionalists.

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The New Right Perspective on Education

The New Right is more of a political than 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 and elsewhere.


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Criticisms of Davis and Moore

  • Intelligence and ability have only a limitedinfluence on educational achievement.  Research indicates that achievement is closely tied to issues of social class, gender and ethnicity. For example,  Bourdieu argues that middle class students possess more cultural and social capital and therefore are able to gain more qualifications than working class students.
  • Similarly, Bowles and Gintis reject the functionalist view thatcapitalist societies are meritocratic. The children of the wealthyand powerful obtain high qualifications and well-rewarded jobs irrespective of their abilities. Theeducation system disguises this with its myth ofmeritocracy. Those denied success blame themselvesrather than the system. Inequality in society is thuslegitimated: it is made to appear fair.
  • Furthermore, the range of class differences in educational achievement suggest that not everyone actually has the same chance in education.


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The market versus the state

The effects of state control 

  • A key feature of New Right thinking (not found in functionalism[NM1] ) 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.

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’ tat does not meet individual and community needs, or the needs of employers for skilled and motivated employees. 
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The market versus the state

Lower standards 

  • 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.


One major difference with functionalism is that the New Right doesn’t believe that the state can run an efficient education system.

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Chubb and Moe: giving the consumer choice

  • Chubb and Moe compared the achievement of 60000students from low-income families in 1015 state and private high schools in the USA.  The data shows that students from low-income families do 5% better in private schools. This suggests that state education is not meritocratic.
  • State education had failed to create equal opportunity because it does not have to respond to students’ needs. Parents and communities cannot do anything about failing schools while the schools are controlled by the state. Private schools produce 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 by a voucher system in which each family would given a voucher to spend on buying education from a school of their choice.



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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 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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Davis and Moore - education and role allocation

  • Davis and Moore see education as ameans of role allocation. The education system sifts and sorts people according to their abilities.
  • The most talentedgain high qualifications which lead to functionallyimportant jobs with high rewards.

This will lead to inequalities in society, but this is quite natural and even desirable in capitalist societies because there is only a limited amount of talent.  These talented few need to be persuaded to make a sacrifice (by staying on in education rather than earning a wage) and society therefore offers incentives through the promise of greater rewards, such as higher salaries

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Criticisms of Parsons

  • Dennis Wrong argues that functionalists such as Parsons have an ‘over-socialised view’ of people as mere puppets of society.  Functionalists wrongly imply that pupils passively accept all that they are taught and never reject the schools values.
  • He assumes that Western education systems are meriticratic, i.e they reward students primarily on the basis of objective criteria such as achievement, ability and intelligence.  The existence of private education and inequalities tied to social class, gender and ethnicity challenges this view.


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Durkheim - education and solidarity

Durkheim identifies two main functions of the education system:

  • creating social solidarity
  • teaching specialist skills 

Social solidarity


  • Durkheim saw the major function of education as the transmission of society's norms and values from one generation to the next.     
  • This is necessary in order to produce social solidarity[NM1] .  This is where individual members of society feel that they belong to a community that is much bigger than they are.
  • The school is a society in miniature. In school the child learns to interact with other members of theschool community and to follow a fixed set of rules.  This experience prepares the child for interacting withmembers of society as an adult and acceptingsocial rules.


Whenever you use an important concept for the first time always explain what it means.

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Functionalist two key questions - education

1. What are the functions of education for society as a whole

2. What are the functional relationships betweeneducation and other parts of the social system?

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Durkheim - education and solidarity

Teaching specialist skills


  • Durkheim argues that individuals must be taught specialist skills so that they can take their place within a highly complex division of labour in which people have to co-operate to produce items.
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Criticisms of Durkheim

  • Marxists argue that educational institutions tend to transmit a dominant culture which serves the interest of the ruling class rather than those of society as a whole.

  • Studies by Willis and Hargreaves, for example, show that the transmission of norms and values is not always successful.  Some students openly reject the values of the school and form anti-school sub-cultures. Willis’s lads openly embraced values which were the opposite to those of the school and conformist students.


It is always useful to evaluate from the point of view of an opposing theory or view.

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Parsons - education and universalistic values

2. Education helps to socialise young people into thebasic values of society.  

Schools transmit two major values:

  • The value of achievement – everyone achieves their own status through their own effort
  • The value of equality of opportunity for every students to achieve their full potential.
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Parsons - education and universalistic values

Parsons argues that school performs two major functions for society:

 1. Through the process of socialization, education acts as a bridge between the family andwider society. 

  • In the family, children are judged according to particularistic standards that apply only to them. Their status within the family is also ascribed.
  • In wider society, the individual isjudged against standards which apply equally to allmembers of society. For example, laws apply to all equally.  Also, status is achieved through merit rather than ascribed.
  • Education helps to ease these transitions.  The examsystem judges all pupils on merit, and school rulessuch as wearing uniform are applied to allpupils equally. 


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  • Although school standards – as measured by exam results – seem ti have risen, there are other possible reasons for this improvement apart from the introduction of a market.
  • Critics argue that low standards in some state schools are the result of inadequate funding rather than state control of education.
  • Gerwitz 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 claim.


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What is Marxism

Marxism is a conflict view that sees society as beinbg 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 own 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) reproduce class inequalities and play an ideological role by persuading exploited workers that inequality is justified and acceptable.
  • Marxists argue that the main function of the education system is to reproduce the inequalities of the capitalist economic system


When you present your account of Marxist views of education, begin by briefly explaining the basic assumptions Marxism makes about capitalist society.

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External Explanations for the Class Gap

The main external (outside school factors) explanations for the class gap in achievement are:


  1. Cultural deprivation – these include class differences in norms and values acquired through socialisation, attitudes to education, speech patterns etc
  2. Material deprivation – these are the physical necessities of life, such as adequate housing, diet and income.
  3. Cultural capital – the values and attitudes needed to be successful at school.


Be very clear about these terms, because short answer questions sometimes ask you to define or give examples of one or other of them.

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Trends in Class and Achievement

·         In 2003, the National Children’s Bureau noted that children from poor backgrounds (i.e. from families living on state benefits) were two-thirds less likely to gain at least 5 GCSEs graded from A*-C than those from affluent backgrounds.


·         Joan Payne’s (2001) research into participation in further education (16-19) showed that differences in home background influence staying-on rates.  For example, 82% of children of professionals and managers were in further education in 2000, compared with only 60% of children of semi/unskilled workers.


Connor and Dewson’s (2001) study of students in higher education found that fewer than one in five young people from lower social class groups participate in higher education

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Trends in Class and Achievement

·         Children from working class backgrounds underachieve compared with their middle class peers.  Jeffries (2002) studied 11000 children born in 1958 and noted that, by the age of seven, those who experienced childhood poverty had significantly fallen behind children from middle class backgrounds in mathematics, reading and other ability tests.  The research also found that the gap in educational attainment between individuals from higher and lower social classes widened as time went on and was greatest by the age of 33. 

·         The Institute of Education (2000) found that more children were born to educated parents in 1970 than in 1958, but those born into poverty persistently underachieve.  The research concludes that childhood poverty makes educational attainment more difficult, even for children with similar test scores.


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1. Cultural deprivation theories

  • A number of studies have argued that the values, attitudes and aspirations of parents have an important effect on their children's education.  It is argued that working class parents tend to value education less than middle class parents, and this has a negative effect on working class students in terms of their poorer performance.Leon  Feinstein argues that the main reason for working class children underachieving was their parents lack of interest in their children’s education. Working class parents are unlikely to give their children educational toys [a1] and activities that will stimulate their thinking and reasoning skills, and less likely to read to them. This affects their intellectual development so that when they begin school they are at a disadvantage compared to middle class children. 

  • Basil Bernstein distinguishes between elaborated and restricted speech codes. Worrking class children tend to use a restricted code which is less analytic and more descriptive.  It is particularistic – it assumes that the listener shares the particular meanings that the speaker holds, so does not spell them out. Middle class children use an elaborate code which is more analytic in which speakers spell out exactly what they mean. Crucially, the elaborate code is the one used in the education system, giving middle class children an advantage over working class children.  This could partly explain the class gap in achievement.


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Nell Keddie describes this cultural deprivation as a myth and sees it as a victim-blaming explanation.  She argues that working class kids are culturally different not culturally deprived. They fail because they are disadvantaged by an education system that is dominated by middle class values.

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3. Cultural capital

  • Pierre Bourdieu uses the concept of cultural capital  to explain why middle class students are more successful. He uses the term cultural capital to refer to the knowledge, attitudes, values, language, tastes and abilities of the middle class.
  • Bourdieu sees middle class culture as capital because it can be translated into wealth and power, and gives an advantage to those who have it.
  • This is because the culture, knowledge and language of the school fits more closely to  middle class culture, therefore middle class students have an in-built advantage.
  • On the other hand, the children of working class parents experience a cultural deficit.  They soon realize that the school and teachers attach little importance to their experiences and values.  As such they may lack the cultural capital necessary for educational success.


You can make the point that Bourdieu shows how material factors (economic capital) and cultural factors (cultural capital) link together to produce class inequalities in achievement (educational capital).

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2. Material deprivation factors

·         Material deprivation refers to the lack of physical resources such as money, room, equipment etc which may have an adverse effect on the educational achievement of working class children. 

·         Smith and Noble  point out the importance of material factors in influencing class differences in educational achievement.  For example, having money allows parents to provide educational toys, books, a healthy diet, more space in the home to do homework, greater opportunities for travel and private tuition.

·         Research by WarwickUniversity found that many students face selection or admission by mortgage whereby wealthier middle class parents can move into the catchment area of good schools, leaving less successful schools full of working class students. 

  • Similarly, Gerwitz found that differences in economic and cultural capital lead to class differences in how far parents can exercise choice of secondary school. Professional middle class parents tend to be privileged skilled choosers who understand how the schools admissions procedures work and can use this ‘hot’ knowledge to access the best schools. 

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Internal Explanations for the Class Gap

The main internal (inside school) explanations for the class gap in achievement are:


  1. Labelling
  2. Banding, setting and streaming,
  3. Marketisation and selection policies
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Evaluation of Willis

Blackledge and Hunt (1985) put forward somecriticisms of Willis:

  • His sample is inadequate for generalizing about therole 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 subcultureswithin schools. Many pupils fall somewhere inbetween total conformity and total rejectíon.
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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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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


Explain the difference between reproducing inequality (by failing working class students) and legitimating or justifying inequality (convincing them of the fairness of capitalism). Reproduction affects students’ life chances, while legitimation affects what they believe and how they respond to capitalism.

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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 - schooling in capitalist Americ

Bowles and Gintis (1976) argue that there is a closerelationship between social relationships in theworkplace and in education. 

This correspondence principal operates through the hidden curriculum and it shapes the workforce inthe following ways:

  • It helps to produce a subservient workforce.
  • The hidden curriculum encourages an acceptance of hierarchy
  • Pupils learn to be motivated by external rewards rather than the love of education itself.School subjects are fragmented in the same way that routine work is.

  • The end-product of this is the production of a hard-working, docile, obedientworkforce which is too divided to challenge theauthority of management.


Explain why an obedient workforce is so important to capitalism – what would happen if they were not obedient ?

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Willis - Learning to Labour

  • Willis challenges the over-deterministic nature of much of Bowles and Gintis’s work, which sees schools producing docile and compliant workers

  • He argues that working class ‘lads’ see through the smokescreen of meritocracy  that tries to legitimate (justify) inequality.  They create a counter-school culture that challenges the schools dominant values. 

  • However, Willis accepts that the outcome is similar to that suggested by Bowles and Gintis, as their anti-school behaviour guarantees that they end up in dead-end jobs.


Although Willis is a Marxist, his view of how the education system reproduces inequality differs from Bowles and Gintis’. It’s important to point out the differences among Marxists as well as those between Marxism and theories like functionalism.

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Evaluation of Bowles and Gintis

Giroux argues that working class students do not accept the legitimacy of school.  Many resist the influence of the hidden curriculum and the history of trade unionism and industrial action in the UK does not support the idea of worker conformity.


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Evaluation of Willis

Blackledge and Hunt (1985) put forward somecriticisms of Willis:

  • His sample is inadequate for generalizing about therole 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 subcultureswithin schools. Many pupils fall somewhere inbetween total conformity and total rejectíon.
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1. Cultural factors and attainment

 b) Family life

  • A number of writers suggest that the nature of family life affects levels of attainment among ethnic minoritíes.
  • Driver and Ballard found that South Asian parents have high aspirations for their children's education despite having little formal education themselves.
  • Pilkington believes that there is strong evidence that the cohesiveness of Asian families may assist in the high educational achievement of some Asian groups, and that African Caribbeans may have family cultures that are not as conducive to educational support.
  • However, Gillborn and Mirza (2000) argue that research shows that African-Caribbean pupils receive greater encouragement to pursue further education than other ethnic groups. 

Recent research has suggested that white working class students are among the lowest achievers with very low aspirations.  Lupton (2004) found that teachers


When answering a question on ethnicity and achievement, don’t just refer to non-white students. Referring to white working class under-achievement provides balance in your answer.

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