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Page last edited :18/11/2016

Click here for an introductory PowerPoint Presentation : Sociological Perspectives on the Functions of Formal Education

Click here for Functions of Formal Education: Social Democratic Perspective: New Link September 2013

Click here for a very useful Prezi on Marxism and Education by Nea Auxilio-Besmonte New Link March 2014

Click here for Marx and Education [a review of Jean Anyon's   book by Patrick Ainley ] New Link October 2016

Click here for a very useful PPTX from Stephen Hickman's site New Link November 2016

Click here  for Alexandra Sugden - YouTube and scroll down for a very useful podcast  New Link November 2016  

Functions of Formal Education Systems : Part One : The Marxist Perspective


Before analysing the functions of formal education systems it is necessary to distinguish between informal and formal education. Individuals receive education both informally from parents, peers, the Church, the mass media and the work place and formally in educational institutions such as schools , colleges and universities. The transition from pre- industrial to industrial society  increases the relative importance of formal education because industrial societies rely very heavily on the availability of specialist work skills which cannot be taught informally. Also within the formal education system it is important to distinguish between the academic subject curriculum and the hidden curriculum which is a set of cultural values, attitudes and norms that is implicitly conveyed to pupils by teachers' actions and by the organisational processes operating inside schools all of which may have a considerable impact on students' attitudes to authority and their acceptance of traditional gender roles although some change in the nature of the Hidden Curriculum in relation to equal opportunities has been apparent in recent years .

The functions of formal education systems to be analysed are: 


  • Preliminary Exercise

As we shall see below the above  functions must be analysed from differing sociological perspectives but the student might first like to answer briefly  the following general preliminary questions.

  • What are the main differences between education and training?
  • How effectively are students educated to reflect upon their own lives and upon important social, political and moral issues, to participate actively in the civic life of their societies, to appreciate great art , literature and music and to take enjoyment from their own physical well-being?
  • How effectively do formal education system prepare students for future employment? BBC on preparedness of teenagers for work
  • Can formal education systems effectively fulfil both broad educational functions and specific training functions or are there potential conflicts in the attempts to fulfil each of these functions?
  • Insofar as formal education systems in capitalist societies are related in various ways  to the economic structures of these societies should capitalist societies be evaluated positively [as, for example, in Functionalist and New Right perspectives] or negatively [as in Marxist and some Feminist perspectives]?
  • Insofar as formal education systems socialise individuals for the future roles in capitalist societies how does this socialisation process contribute to social stability? How powerful is this socialisation process and is it beneficial or harmful to the individuals socialised?
  • Formal education systems help to allocate individuals to their future occupational roles but how meritocratic are these role allocation processes?
  • How do formal education systems contribute to processes of social reform? What government education policies have been introduced to promote social reform and how effective have they been
  • Read the following article. The Education Myth: Does Education Matter? {Professor Alison Wolf} 



The Marxist analysis of formal education systems within capitalist societies must be considered in the context of Marx's overall analysis of Capitalism based on the existence of social classes around the capitalist production process, the inevitability of class exploitation and of a conflict between the property-owning Bourgeoisie and the property-less Proletariat culminating in the eventual revolutionary overthrow of the Bourgeoisie and the replacement of capitalism by the classless, socialist Utopia.

Under capitalism, according to Marx, the Bourgeoisie are the economically dominant class arid since for Marx, the characteristics of the Superstructure [the political, legal and ideological structures of society]  are heavily influenced by the economic base, the economically dominant Bourgeoisie will also be a politically dominant ruling class able to pressure the institutions of the State to secure its own interests. As Marx and Engels put it: "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole Bourgeoisie".

Whereas according to Functionalists, formal education systems contribute to the economic efficiency and social stability of societies which are basically democratic, meritocratic and based on consensus, Marxists argue that formal education systems help to maintain  and reproduce capitalist societies which are exploitative, unequal, unjust and cruel. They do so in the following ways.

This Marxist to the analysis of formal education systems may now be considered in more detail. In Marxist theory, capitalist industrial societies , in simplified terms, are described as two class societies in which the property-owning Bourgeoisie exploit the property-less Proletariat. The economic base of society heavily influences the superstructure of society (the political, legal, religious and education systems, for example) and so the nature of the education system reflects the nature of the capitalist economic system as a whole  and it is designed to perpetuate that very capitalist economic system.

The Marxist  Louis Althusser distinguishes between  Ideological State Apparatuses and Repressive State Apparatuses. ISAs include the family, the church , the mass media and the formal education system and these are institutions which act to communicate to us not a set of norms and values which are based upon consensus because they are beneficial  to the individual members of society but to communicate a ruling class ideology which benefits the rich, powerful Bourgeoisie at the expense of the poorer, relatively powerless Proletariat. ISAs are distinguished by Althusser from the RSAs (Repressive State Apparatuses) such as the police, courts , penal system and the military which maintain social stability by force if the ISAs fail to maintain social stability by persuasion.

Formal Education systems have been analysed in more detail from a Marxist Perspective by the  Marxists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis  in their study entitled Schooling in Capitalist America [1976] in which  they argue that the social relations of the education system correspond in several important respects to the social relations of production in the capitalist system and that this correspondence between the education system and the capitalist economic system serves to prepares students for their future roles in the capitalist economic system. This is Bowles' and Gintis' so-called Correspondence Theory.

With regard to the US education system, Bowles and Gintis make the following claims.

Bowles and Gintis provide a powerful Marxist criticism of formal education systems but their study has nevertheless attracted several significant criticisms including the following.


The Marxist Perspective: Overall Evaluation [Some of this information is adapted  from my short essay on the Functions of Formal Education Systems. Also more detailed information on the sociological perspectives outlined here will be provided in subsequent documents]

Even if we accept the above limitations of the Bowles and Gintis study we might [but might not] nevertheless still be inclined to accept also that once points such as the greater influence of individual human agency , the relative autonomy of the education system  and the more limited power of the dominant class ideology are incorporated into a kind of Neo-Marxist model , such a model would still provide a very useful explanation of the functions of formal education systems within capitalist societies. However, as always in Sociology, we must recognise that any given sociological perspective may be evaluated using other sociological perspectives and on this basis we may consider the following broad criticisms from other sociological perspectives  of the Marxist perspective on the Functions of Formal Education Systems. 

Functionalist sociologists reject Marxist criticisms of the capitalist system and the Marxist analysis of the functions of formal education systems within the capitalist system. In the Functionalist perspective industrial capitalist societies are seen as relatively meritocratic, democratic and economically efficient which means that they can provide good living standards for the majority of their members and offer a political framework which safeguards individual liberties. Consequently there will be a broad consensus that these societies do operate in the interests of their members and institutions such as families, schools, the Church, the mass media, political parties and pressure groups fulfil the useful function of socialising individuals in various ways to accept the norms and values which help to sustain the consensus in support of liberal democratic capitalism.

Functionalists also reject the Marxist view that formal education systems deny equality of opportunity while nevertheless persuading students to accept to accept the myth of equality of opportunity and encouraging  primarily working class students that they should accept without question unskilled, poorly paid , unfulfilling work since their limited abilities mean they are suitable for little else..

Instead in the Functionalist view formal education systems  are seen as fulfilling several important functions which are beneficial to capitalist societies as a whole and to individual members of capitalist societies. They  transmit useful knowledge and skills, ease the transition from the family to the wider society, encourage individuals to accept the norms and values of society which will help to promote  social stability and rising living standards and ensure that individuals are allocated to appropriate work roles on meritocratic principles which again will in crease social stability and economic efficiency.

 New Right theorists  also reject the Marxist criticisms of capitalist and agree with Functionalists that industrial societies should ideally be organised as capitalist societies and that education systems should ideally operate to meet the needs of capitalism . However  these New Right theorists also argued in the 1970s and 1980s that in practice state education systems were often organised inefficiently and not necessarily meritocratically and that both their formal and hidden curricula were not geared to meeting the needs of industry. New Right theorists argued therefore in favour of the expansion of private education:  in favour of education policies which would enable effective schools to expand at the expense of ineffective schools as a means of improving overall standards and the educational opportunities of disadvantaged pupils : in favour of increased emphasis within the formal curriculum on the transmission of knowledge and skills specifically relevant to the needs of industry and commerce, and against " liberal progressive" social ideas and teaching methods.

Thus as well as rejecting the Marxist analysis of capitalism New Right theorists argue, contrary to Marxist theory , that students should be prepared more effectively for their roles as future workers in the capitalist system . New Right theorists do argue for educational reforms theoretically designed to increase equality of educational opportunity but critics of the New Right would argue their ideas have since 1979 resulted in the introduction of market- based educational reforms by Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments which will actually generate greater inequality of educational opportunity  and that it is difficult to see how New Right theorists can square their support for increased equality of opportunity with their acceptance of the continued existence of expensive private schools.

Whereas Marxists emphasise the extent to which formal education systems are geared to meet the needs of capitalism, Feminists emphasise the extent to which they discriminate against women in the interests of patriarchy or capitalism or both. Thus, Feminists have argued  persuasively  that female students have been steered toward the traditional housewife-mother role rather than a career and have been discouraged from some subjects such as Maths, Sciences and Engineering with good career prospects. They may also be indoctrinated with personality traits which restrict their career prospects as well as their chances for personal happiness. Insofar as all of this occurs, women may help to stabilise the capitalist system by performing domestic tasks for little money thus enabling firms to pay lower male wages and consequently to retain higher profits. 

It is generally agreed that  recent changes in education policy involving more attention to equal opportunities issues and better careers advice have enabled many females to improve their educational qualifications and career prospects and Liberal feminists especially would argue that further gradual reforms of education and of society general can bring further improvements in women's situations. However, Marxist/Socialist and Black Feminists would note the difficulties that many working class and  ethnic minority females continue to face within the education system and in society generally while Radical Feminists would argue that the Hidden Curriculum  continues to ignore systematically their analysis of the detrimental effects of patriarchy which still operate in the education system and in the wider society.

The Social Democratic Perspective

The politics of the British Labour Party are influenced heavily by the ideology of Social Democracy which itself is flexible enough to encompass the differing strands of moderate and more radical "left-wing" opinion existing within the Labour Party. Social Democrats have traditionally been critical of the extreme inequalities of wealth, income, power and opportunity associated with unregulated free market capitalism  but they believe also that economic efficiency, economic growth and rising living standards for all can best be achieved in a mixed economy containing a large capitalist private sector which is regulated by government in various ways combined with an  effective  Welfare State through which the inequalities associated with unregulated capitalism can be much reduced.

Social Democrats claim ,therefore, that the Marxist-inspired overthrow of the capitalist system is unnecessary and undesirable because the Social Democratic variant of "Socialism" can best be achieved gradually via the development of a mixed economy in which the extreme inequalities of free market capitalism are much diminished as a result of Social Democratic reforms. However the Social Democrats' support for a mixed economy with a large private sector lead them to believe that some income inequalities remain necessary to incentivise workers  and this implies that capitalist class structures [albeit with somewhat reduced economic inequalities ] are seen as perfectly acceptable by many Social Democrats although some would criticise recent Labour administrations for their failure  to reduce the extent of economic inequality which currently exists in the UK.

Social Democrats would argue that formal education systems should ideally encourage individuality, independence and creativity, prepare pupils for their future employment roles and socialise pupils to accept the norms and values of their society and that in the interests of both social justice and economic efficiency formal education systems should operate in accordance with meritocratic principles . However they have also recognised that equality of educational opportunity has been inhibited  traditionally by the continued existence of private schools, the disadvantages of Tripartite Secondary Education and the operation of processes of negative labelling throughout the British education system [although many Social Democrats do support systems of streaming, setting and banding which could be seen as major factors contributing to negative labelling].

Consequently  they have supported  increased state expenditure on education, the growth of Comprehensive Secondary Education and a range of compensatory education programmes ranging from the EPA programme of the 1960s to the Education Action Zones and Sure Start Programmes of the 1997-2010 era  but many social democrats recognise also that such reforms have not as yet led to significant increases in working class relative social mobility but they are nevertheless hopeful that in principle more effective educational reforms targeted especially on disadvantaged students will in future promote greater meritocracy so that the formal education system can help to reduce the extent of class  inequality.

Many Social Democrats have  criticised recent Labour Education policies involving  the continued existence of private education and Grammar Schools  and Labour's retention of policies initially introduced by the Conservatives involving the development of so-called quasi- markets within the state education system all of which may have helped to entrench class inequalities in educational achievement and hence to restrict social mobility and entrench social and economic inequality. Furthermore some Social Democrats argue that the potential power of educational reforms operating in isolation should in any case not be overstated and in this respect they support Basil Bernstein's earlier 1970s claim that "education cannot compensate for society" which means that more egalitarian economic and social policies will also be necessary if meritocracy is to be achieved and once again Labour's record  between 1997 and 2010 of halting [almost] the growth of income inequality but failing to reverse it attracts criticism from more radical Social Democrats.

Since Social Democrats support the continued existence of a reformed, humanised capitalist system they see it as essential that formal education systems  should help to prepare pupils for their future employment roles within the capitalist system and have often argued that in practice schools have failed to carry out this function effectively. Some Social Democrats might agree that certain aspects of the Hidden Curriculum have tended [for example via processes of streaming, banding setting and labelling] to dampen the aspirations of working class pupils and thereby to prepare them for "working class jobs" within the capitalist system but at the same time they are likely to believe that there are also opportunities within the education system for pupils to discuss such issues as international and national poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia and environmental issues all of which can in principle encourage pupils to develop critical attitudes  to their own society rather than to succumb simply and more or less automatically to capitalist authoritarianism as is suggested in the correspondence  theories of the Marxists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis.  

 Nevertheless , of course, the Marxists argue that the social democratic analysis of capitalism is flawed and that their tentative optimism in relation to the potentialities of education within a capitalist system is misguided.

 This concludes my description and evaluation of the Marxist Perspective on formal education systems. However students will notice that there is nothing here so far on the evaluation of the Marxist Perspective from a Postmodern Perspective and I hope to add some information on this aspect fairly soon. Meanwhile you may like to look at the following exercise.



Exercise : You may like to attempt this exercise now especially if you already have some familiarity with the Functionalist Perspective on Formal Education Systems or alternatively postpone the delight until you have studied the Functionalist Perspective more fully!

Click here for an Exercise on the Comparison of Functionalist and Marxist Perspectives on the Roles of Formal Education Systems in the Socialisation Process