The education system is viewed in many different ways by different sociologists. When talking about the education system, sociologists are referring to forms of education where people experience secondary socialisation, which is the relearning of the norms and values learned during primary socialisation in the family; it is also viewed as an agent of social control where children are taught to conform to societies expectations, and they are taught this through the hidden curriculum which is lessons which aren’t part of the national curriculum which the government says are needed to be learnt but are lessons such as how to be obedient and who to be obedient to. The system of meritocracy is the idea that the ones who do well are rewarded, and those who do not do well are not, i.e. those who do the best get the best job.
The meritocratic view of the education system means that the system is fair and supports all; however, other sociologists discard this view as legitimising a system of inequality where some people dues to wealth/class do better than others. Functionalists believe that the education system is meritocratic. A meritocracy is an idea that those who work hard receive rewards. This is the view that the hardest working students get the best grades and get the best jobs. They believe that differences in cultural values lead to differences in class results that have been seen throughout the years and were evident at the end of the recent academic year, with children in the highest social classes doing better than those in the lowest social classes.
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Through this system of meritocracy, there is an equality of opportunity, which is where school creates a system where all people can become equal no matter what class, gender or ethnicity everyone has the same opportunity to become a police officer or a doctor. This meritocracy is said to sift and sort perspective students into their correct positions as an adult in society. According to Parsons, school is simply the bridge between the family or primary socialisation and entry to employment. He views the education system as a positive system of placing the best students at the top in school and eventually the workplace. This idea is supported by Davis and Moore (1945), who say that meritocracy is the system that social institutes (this includes schools) use to sift and sort their members into different positions. In this way, they believe that school is meritocratic. They view meritocracy as allowing the principles of stratification to take place where individuals place and are motivated into different positions.
Marxists criticise Davis and Moore for having extreme conservative views and being very class-based. Functionalists view meritocracy as being evident in society. They use evidence such as the rise of working-class children in universities as there has been a rise in higher education than in the fifties supporting the idea of a meritocracy. However, this view comes up against scrutiny from Marxists who say the proof that is given isn’t as conclusive as would be made out as the expansion of universities has largely benefited the bourgeoisie as there are more middle and upper-class people in universities. They say that meritocracy is ‘made yup’ to legitimise the system. They view the few working-class kids in universities as letting a few through to keep the rest quiet as it means people accept their positions as if they would have worked harder I could have achieved this.
Marxist’s then, due to this fact, view education as unfair and not meritocratic. They do, however, believe that there is a myth of meritocracy, which was made up to legitimise the system of unfairness in which the bourgeoisie rule and the proletariat are exploited. The myth of meritocracy makes the working class accept that they are working class and will always be working class. This is where legitimising comes in. They believe that the few working-class kids that go to university make the rest of the working class think that it’s possible. Still, they just didn’t try hard enough to achieve the top position s. In this way, as Althusser talks about, a docile and obedient workforce is produced because the education system of a capitalist society passes on the belief through meritocracy that it is fair. Therefore, the poor should accept their poverty as their fault as they didn’t try hard enough or messed around.
Bowles and Gintis speak about the myth of meritocracy. They said that schools did allocate students to jobs but said this was not a positive concept. Still, a negative one which was legitimised by the myth of meritocracy where there is an idea that meritocracy exists, and this is fed through the hidden curriculum as children are told through school if you work hard, you can achieve this, but this doesn’t exist it’s just said to not only to make sure there is not an uprising against the capitalist system but also reproduce the classes. Marxists criticise functionalist’s ideas behind meritocracy for numerous reasons. Functionalists say that the free education system is proof of fairness. However, Marxists disagree and talk about the existence of grammar schools (whose students are mostly from the middle class) and private schools which are also very middle-class institutions and public schools which are too expensive for anyone outside the upper class and because these schools exist and have better funding and more money they can afford the best things to help students do well.
Marxists also believe that there are disadvantages for working-class children before they even start school. Through things such as material deprivation, working-class kids can’t afford things that others can, such as tutors. In some cases, computers mean that they have disadvantaged resources, so they can’t possibly have the same chance as others. Also, Bourdieu, though criticised for being culturally bias and suggesting the working-class culture is a deprived one he picks up the point that teachers are middle class and so schools are middle institutions. For this reason, the working class can’t fit in as well as the middle class who have cultural capital do the best which is proven year after year when GCSE and A-Level results are released.
They are also disadvantaged in how they speak; Labov and Bernstein talk about speech codes and how this disadvantage the working class. Bernstein spoke about two different kinds of speech codes that are elaborated, which are very descriptive. This is a middle-class way of speaking and what is needed in school and restricting, which is colloquial and consists of slang words that create a view of a person not being as bright. Labov went on to say that we must be careful not to assume a restricted speech code means that a person is thick. However, judgements are made based on the way people speak; because of these disadvantages, the system can not be meritocratic as meritocracy is based on fairness and depends on people being equal from the beginning.
Interactionalist’s agree with Labov and Bernstein as they agree that people are labelled on how they look and sound, so how can there be a meritocracy if people are treated differently according to aspects of their personality? The interactionalist approach is mostly against the idea of a meritocracy because they believe that teacher labelling exists, and George Herbert Mead spoke about symbolic interactionalism where our behaviour is in part created by the way those around us treat us; in particular, significant others which are people who have power and control in our lives such as parents, teachers, friends and partners.
In particular, the role of teachers in education is picked up upon as Jacobson and Rosenthal (1968) found that when a group of children came up from primary school all at the same level, they told teachers that some did particularly well on a test they made which predicted future genius’ this was a fake test. They randomly chose who would be the ‘intellectual bloomers’ after a term; they went back and found those labelled as intellectual bloomers did a lot better than others. This proves that meritocracy can not exist as teachers label and can change results, so not everyone gets a fair chance as if you’re labelled as bright, you’ll do better and if your not, you won’t do as well.
David Gillborn’s research is largely ethnographic and continues to this day. In his book Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy, published in 2008, the system does not promote equality. Still, to maintain the achievement gap between the white pupils and those pupils of ethnic minorities by stating this, he immediately rejects the idea of a meritocracy as meritocracy is about people having equality from the beginning and being judged upon hard work; however, if people are judged upon by ethnicity fairness cannot exist. Evidence for this is that Gillborn found that there was race labelling in the Local Education Authorities (LEA) who expected a rise in white pupils attainment of 40 per cent but only a 17 per cent rise in that of black pupils and because interactionalist’s believe that those around us largely shape us if black pupils are not expected to do as well then they will not; this is the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy in which a child is continuously told that they will not do well, so they do not do well.
Stephan Ball (1981) also used an ethnographic study to conduct his research. In his study ‘Beachside Comprehensive’, he found that teachers treat pupils differently based on streaming which is where a person is put in one stream for all subjects (assuming a person who is bright at one subject is bright at all subjects) and setting which is when you have different sets for each subject (accepts pupils are bright at different things) and because of this difference in the way that people are treated there can not be a meritocracy as not everyone is treated the same and as teachers are considered as a significant other in the way we establish ourselves if they view us as not bright we will consider ourselves not bright.
Social democrats look at class and attainment. Hasley (1960s) criticised the education system for wasting talent this is because streaming exists as if you are good at a particular subject but are placed in the lowest because you are not good at national curriculum subjects your talent at that subject is wasted because it may lead the child to think that they are not good at that subject so give up which wastes their talent and because of this equality of opportunity is not provided so; therefore, a system of meritocracy can’t exist. The social-democratic political time brought into play the comprehensive system to try and make a meritocracy, but they do not believe that it exists. The social-democratic view is that of Gordon Brown and the Labour Party; they believe in helping people to do well and not wasting talent, but many social democrats believe this is not yet happening.
Feminists believe that gender differences mean that the education system cannot be meritocratic because, for good or for bad, there are gender differences in attainment. Because of such obvious differences, they see that there can’t be fairness. At the beginning of education, girls weren’t doing as good as boys were, and liberal feminists focused on law change and changed social attitudes to make the system and result more equal and stop gender-stereotyped lessons from being taught. Although girls tended to do better after introducing the national curriculum, which is put down to the feminisation of the workplace and because there is still a difference between the sexes, there can’t be a meritocracy while there are such obvious differences.
These differences are proved by the results achieved by students each year at GCSE and A-Level data retrieved by DfES. UCAS found that there are 10% more girls achieving five or more A* to C grades and 8% more girls achieving A-B grades at A-Level, and because of this factor, there are 8% more girls being accepted into university degree courses. There are many different types of feminists though the main theme is gender difference and how this can not equate to a meritocracy and although black feminist’s speak about ethnicity playing a role and Marxist feminists talk about economic factors playing a part in gender difference feminism as a whole accepts that because these differences exist there can’t be fair. Therefore there can’t be a meritocracy. Sylvia Walby (1999), a post-modernist feminist, found that equality could not occur in today’s education system when she spoke about her triple systems theory. Equality will only occur when we consider the triple impact of sex.
Class and race on a person’s life experiences and because these things can either act as advantages or disadvantages to a person’s education, there can’t be a meritocracy based on all people being the same and doing well due to their own personal attempts. Heaton and Lawson also argue that even within the hidden curriculum, there is a system of inequality that operates in 5 ways: books and textbooks where women are displayed as dependant on men and absent from science textbooks, female students being made to feel uncomfortable in certain subjects (e.g. woodwork which is considered a male profession), teachers who label and assign girls and boys different tasks such as asking boys to move furniture and girls to wash up, a patriarchal curriculum where boys are more recognised than girls in subjects such as PE, and lack of positive role models.
This, however, at the time was applied to girls failing but can also be attributed to the system not being meritocratic as the encouragement of working-class boys into woodwork which would not necessarily be put to middle-class boys see’s the myth of meritocracy in place as they are not treated (boys and girls as well as working and middle class) the same. Postmodernism is a period of time that occurs after the 1970s. The period between the industrial revolution and 1970 is known as the modern where things were new, and things were changing. The time which we live in now is after the modern so is known as the postmodern society. Postmodernist sociologists view society as diverse. They believe this is represented in the educational system with various qualifications such as BTEC, Diploma and Vocational, and GCSEs’s and A-Levels.
They talk about society in terms of a grand narrative. This is that religion and science are nothing but a big story. Because the knowledge that we have is a story, then teachers are storytellers. As narrative changes over time, teachers can never really prepare you for life; this proves, according to them, that a meritocratic education system can not exist as it is designed to sift and sort people into their roles in society and if society is always changing the education system is pointless as what job school prepares you to take may not exist. Moore and Hickox (1994) argue that because our world changes so quickly, it is impossible to provide a national curriculum that fully prepares people for the world they will live in. This further supports that sifting and sorting can’t occur because jobs can exist one moment and not the next, which means that the meritocratic system can’t put the brightest at the top as the top is continuously changing.
The New Right is a political view as the social democrats, but they criticise the system differently. The New Right claim that schools and the whole educational system are too soft and easy as children are not encouraged to be independent, and this is mostly due to the welfare state, which is the introduction of free schooling, free healthcare, pensions and sick pay, and this has made a dependant society which has a lack of responsibility. Because of this new culture of dependency, there has to be a lot of money spent by the government to keep society running. This is a very right-wing view as they believe schools should be run like a business and increase competition between schools by introducing league tables and different types of schools. This view is associated with the conservative party in government, which initially, between 1979 and 1997, was run by Margaret Thatcher but is now run by David Cameron.
The view that the education system seems to be outweighed by the evidence against its existence; however, it must be accepted that there were more working-class people in university than in the fifties when people did what their parents did, and this means that a meritocracy where people can move up and down the social ladder must exist as if it did not then there would be no working-class kids in universities. However, Marxists believe that because there is such a small number of working-class people in university, they are just there to make meritocracy seem as though it exists and legitimise the myth. Interactionalist also holds the view that meritocracy doesn’t exist and talk about labelling, which matches with the Marxist view put forward by Labov and Bernstein when they spoke about speech codes and interactionalist’s talk about the significance of when teachers pick this up.
Feminist’s talk about gender differences which play a role in how well males and females do in education. Political views such as the social-democratic and new right also hold that meritocracy doesn’t exist because the system waste’s talent or is wasteful of resources. Postmodernists talk about how a meritocracy to make everyone equal can’t exist because of the vast differences in society. When weighed up, meritocracy appears to be a myth made to make society function well and for the continuation of the classes as middle-class people can’t move down as they will inherit money from their parents, so that means working-class children need to go on become working-class adults.
Although this concluding view is a Marxist one, it must be accepted that different schools of thought also have an input in the conclusion of postmodernism in particular as it sets out how different society is. This means that there can’t be a way to make everyone equal to meritocracy as a cultural capital advantage for the middle class. However, not all teachers are the middle class, which must be accepted. Even with this fact, material deprivation still leaves the working class at a disadvantage because they can’t afford the same things as the higher classes, such as tutors. Therefore, the education system is not and can not be meritocratic as many other factors influence meritocracy.