Essay on Functions of Education: Analyse the functions of formal education systems from different sociological perspectives.

Document last edited:27/08/2011

See also: Assignment4: Functionalism, Marxism, Socialisation and the Schools

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             Marxism and Formal Education [more detailed]

Essay Plan

  • Introduction: List of Functions

  • The Functionalist Approach

  • The New Right Approach

  • The Marxist Approach

  • The Interactionist Approach

  • Feminist Approaches

  • The Social Democratic Approach

  • Summary

In order to analyse the functions of formal education systems we must first of all distinguish between pre-industrial societies where education is provided more informally in families, churches and workplaces and industrial societies where formal education systems expand [as an aspect of structural differentiation ]to meet the needs of industrial economies for more skilled specialised workers. We must also distinguish between the formal academic curriculum and the hidden curriculum which may be defined as the set of norms and values implicitly conveyed to pupils by teachers' words and actions and by the organisational processes operating in schools.

It is argued generally that education has several functions in society :

The Functionalist Approach.

It was stressed byEmile Durkheim that that the formal education system becomes increasingly important  for the transmission of knowledge and skills in industrial societies as scientific progress and the division of labour generate increasingly complex occupations (chemist, accountant, doctor etc.) whose skills need to be taught by specialist educators and cannot be passed simply from parents to children as was the case with the simpler occupations of pre-industrial societies. Durkheim pointed out also that education eases children’s transition from the particularistic family to the universalistic work environment and also, very importantly that education plays an important role in the socialisation process.

The Functionalist approach was updated and refined by Talcott Parsons who argued that the core values of US society in the 1950s and 1960s were beliefs in individual achievement and equality of opportunity and that schools played an important role in socialising students to accept these values. In so doing, the US educational system is seen as playing a role which is highly beneficial or functional for US society as a whole because:

  1. industrial societies require a highly motivated, achievement oriented work force and
  2. because if educational systems are known to be based upon equality of opportunity the differences in economic rewards which arise from educational success or failure are seen as the outcome of a meritocratically organised educational system such that they are unlikely to be criticised. Thus is social stability maintained.{ This is quite a difficult point which may need a little further discussion in class.}

Parsons also argues that education systems play a major role in allocating individuals to appropriate roles within society. Thus, through complex systems of assessment, schools and colleges evaluate the talents, strengths and weaknesses of their students and these school assessment procedures are assumed to have a major impact on the employment prospects of young people concerned in that it is educationally successful students who are most likely to be allocated to occupations which are functionally most important and well-paid. Parsons assumes that the school assessment procedures are basically fair and meritocratic so that this helps to ensure that the most talented individuals are allocated to the most demanding occupations and vice versa. This is also beneficial to society as a whole because industrial efficiency will increase if roles are allocated according to meritocratic principles. Functionalism is based upon a consensus model of society such that industrial societies are seen as basically economically efficient, democratic, and meritocratic and are believed to operate in the interests of all of their citizens. Education systems contribute to the effective functioning of these societies as outlined above.

The New Right Approach

New Right theorists agree with Functionalists that industrial societies should ideally be organised as capitalist societies and that education systems should operate to meet the needs of capitalism but these New Right theorists also argued in the 1970s and 1980s that in practice state education systems were organised inefficiently 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, of education policies which would enable effective schools to expand at the expense of ineffective schools as a means of improving overall standards, 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. The influence of these New Right ideas can be seen in the development of the so-called "New Vocationalism" and government policies designed to enhance freedom of parental choice of schooling .

The Marxist Approach

In the Marxist framework the focus of analysis is not simply on industrial societies but on capitalist industrial societies which are seen as unequal, unjust, cruel and conflictual. In the general Marxist theory, the economic base of society heavily influences the superstructure of society which includes the education system as well as the political system, the mass media, the family etc. The French Marxist Althusser sees the education system as one of several ideological state apparatuses which via the socialisation process transmit not a set of widely shared norms and values beneficial to all but a ruling class ideology which helps to protect the privileges of the capitalist class at the expense of the working class.

This Marxist view of education is extended by Bowles and Gintis who argue in Schooling in Capitalist America using their Correspondence Theory  that the organisation of USA schools corresponds in several respects to the organisation of capitalist industry and helps to prepare students for entry into the capitalist system and to sustain the injustices of the capitalist system. They claim that the socialisation process as it operates in schools via the Hidden Curriculum serves to create an obedient, submissive , fragmented workforce able to come to terms with the alienation for the capitalist depends upon such a workforce for its survival;

For example, schools are organised on hierarchical principles of authority and control such that teachers give orders which students are expected to obey. Students have very little influence over the school curriculum; knowledge is fragmented and students have very little opportunity for self-fulfilment in their work.. All of this prepares especially low stream pupils, mainly of working class origin for work which is also hierarchically organised, fragmented, alienating and lacking in intrinsic satisfaction. "Pupils are prepared for their work roles through a close correspondence between the social relationships which govern personal interaction in the workplace and the social relationships of the education system.

Also, Bowles and Gintis argue that schools are especially likely to reward with high grades pupils with personality traits showing subordinacy and discipline and to penalise with low grades pupils with personality traits showing creativity, aggression and independence. They claim, therefore that schools reward the personality traits which will be helpful to the capitalist system once school students begin work.

Bowles and Gintis agree that the education system has an important role allocation function but deny that role allocation operates according to meritocratic principles. Working class students face  many material and cultural disadvantages and are also affected adversely by negative labelling processes operating in the schools themselves so that to them education does not offer real equality of opportunity. All it does is to sustain a myth of equality of opportunity which restricts criticism of the education system and of the capitalist system as a whole. [We may note that it is interactionist theorists who have analysed in most detail the impacts of positive and negative labelling on educational achievement but since they are concerned primarily with micro- sociological issues they have tended not to relate their findings to the overall functions of formal education systems

Bowles and Gintis provide a powerful Marxist criticism of formal education but they have been criticised on the grounds that:

They have failed to prove that the Hidden Curriculum serves to create an obedient submissive personality. "The Lads" in Paul Willis’ study  were far from being submissive and obedient, for example.

They underestimate the significance of the formal curriculum for encouraging open minded analysis and criticism of existing social arrangements.

They do not explain why and how education should be organised to meet the oppressive demands of the capitalist system given that individual teachers    have absolutely   no wish to use education for this purpose.

In a more recent version of Marxist theory Nicos Poulantzas introduced the idea of the relative autonomy of the state according to which it was claimed that capitalist   states need some relative autonomy vis a vis the capitalist class if they are to operate in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. It may be suggested also that formal education systems education systems operate with a certain amount of relative autonomy in that, for example even if formal education systems do provide opportunities for the criticism of societies' institutions most students nevertheless are persuaded to find a niche in societies as they exist rather than to try to change societies fundamentally. [Again the issue of relative autonomy could be pursued further in class].

The Interactionist Approach

It is argued by interactionist theorists such as Hargreaves, Keddie and Ball that by processes of setting, banding and streaming, mainly working class students are labelled as failures. Anti school subcultures may develop in the lower sets, bands or streams  as students seek to regain informal status among their peers having been denied official academic status by the schools. The more experienced teachers may be allocated to higher streams and teachers in general may prepare more carefully for higher stream classes. Consequently self- fulfilling prophecies arise whereby the  definition of working class students as failures helps to ensure that they do indeed fail. Interactionist theorists do not focus heavily on relationships between formal education systems and the economy but their theories may certainly be used to suggest that formal education systems are not organised meritocratically and this conclusion does help to undermine both Functionalist and New Right analyses of relationships between formal education and the economy. Similarly interactionist studies could be used to provide some support for Marxist, Social Democratic and Feminist theories.  

Feminist Approaches

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, it has been persuasively argued 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 Approach

Social Democrats provide additional insights. They agree that the education system plays the roles outlined above but deny  that it is organised meritocratically  and argue in favour of increased government spending on education , comprehensive secondary schooling and compensatory education as means of improving the prospects of disadvantaged students. Some social democrats hope optimistically that educational reform can itself enhance equality of opportunity but others argue that the effects of social inequality are such that affluent parents can easily use their financial and cultural advantages to secure relative educational advantages for their children such that as Basil Bernstein stated in the 1970s it is still the case that "Education cannot compensate for society" and that wider social and economic reforms are also necessary.


In summary , it is clear that sociologists working from different perspectives are in broad agreement as to what the function of formal education actually are but that considerable disagreement exists as to how these functions are to be analysed and in particular who benefits most from the operation of the formal education system. Thus while Functionalists and New Right theorists argue in support of capitalist societies in general and claim that education systems  are essentially meritocratic systems which contribute to the maintenance of capitalism and hence help to ensure reasonable living standards for all, Marxists, Feminists and Social Democrats are all critical of capitalism as a system and deny that formal educational systems are meritocratic. Whereas Social Democrats and Liberal feminists seek the reform of Capitalism, Marxists and Marxist Feminists seek its abolition and so it is unsurprising that it is Marxists and Marxist Feminists who are especially critical of formal education systems for its role in the reproduction of capitalism just as Radical feminists are critical of its role in the reproduction of patriarchy.



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