Education is an aspect of socialisation that involves the acquisition of knowledge and the learning of skills. It shapes our beliefs and moral values through a systematic formal transmission. Education is said to be an integral function of society, as it provides a contributory characteristic that helps to maintain and adapt society and its values. Before the 1960s, education was taught through a system known as the ‘Tripartite’ system. This involved all children at the age of eleven undertaking an exam to ascertain individual ability to separate the children into streams of ability and assign them to what was believed to be the most appropriate school.
Those demonstrating exceptional ability went to Grammar schools, which were designed to prepare them for professional occupations. Those of lesser ability moved to Secondary modern schools, which focused on providing pupils with the skills necessary to prepare the students for more manual and unqualified jobs. A third sector was introduced called a Technical college. This was primarily based on teaching the children purely manual skills, which would be used for manual labour. This system frequently reinforced social inequality because it was largely middle-class children who went to Grammar school. At the same time, the working classes were frequently restricted to either Secondary Moderns or technical schools. The difference being that middle-class families provided their children with advantageous primary socialisation in the form of literature, using a wide vocabulary, etc., which resulted in a stark difference in ability at the age of eleven.
Prices start at $12
Prices start at $11
Prices start at $14
Prices start at $12
The system was highly criticised because it did not allow a fair opportunity for children from all social backgrounds. In response to this, in the 1960’s/70’s, the British Labour Government designed and introduced the ‘Comprehensive’. The Comprehensive was intended to reduce class differences in educational attainment. It allowed children to mix from all social backgrounds and therefore provided equal opportunity. Although this system has been highly criticised since it was first introduced, several factors imply and suggest that although the comprehensive system is less divisive than the tripartite, it still does little to engender social equality, if anything, serves to reinforce class inequality. On the contrary, according to the Marxist Sociologists Bowles and Gintis (Schooling in Capitalist America, 1976), education will always reinforce and legitimate social inequality.
As a consequence of the elite owning the means, they decide what the curriculum entails and therefore continuously reinforce and reproduce their class status as the system is designed by themselves, leaving the working class powerless. In any industrial capitalist society, there is a rigid hierarchy of authority; this is evident in the workplace, society, and its values instilled in members of society at an early age – at school. For example, in the workplace; Shareholders, Directors, Managers, professionals, technical staff, white-collar workers, down to manual employees; one being answerable to the next, but at the top of the ladder, the shareholders who own and control the entire company. Within the workplace, there is a fragmentation of tasks. Due to the structure of the work itself, the tasks become mundane, provide little if any scope for initiative, responsibility and judgement.
Therefore the employee works purely for economic needs rather than actual interest, and the elite, the company owners, maintain profit gain and control. This organisation of production in capitalist society can be seen as reflected in the structure of the education system—the fragmentation of tasks equalling to the short lessons. There is very little time in school to undertake a deep, comprehensive study of each particular subject simply due to the short time it is supposedly taught, consequently leaving much of the study to outward influences like extra tutoring, homework etc. Activities that usually can only be provided by the middle and upper classes due to economic affluence. The education system has been seen as reinforcing and legitimising social inequality by emphasising the values of discipline and authority.
These are imperative for upholding wider inequalities and ensuring that the workers do not rebel against owners or capitalists, nor do the working class attempt to change the system that does not work for them. According to Bowles and Gintis, the pupil is powerless to the choice of subjects which they learn and how they are taught. They claim that the child learns to study at school to achieve good grades because that will provide them with a better job when they leave rather than learning for learnings’ sake. A similar picture is seen in the workplace; the employee works in a meaningless job for financial necessity rather than personal enjoyment. Thus, there is alienation at school and work between means and ends. Bowles and Gintis would argue that schools are not uniform in their organisation and that school experience differs for all, for example, boys, girls, blacks, whites, rich and poor.
The typically working-class school will emphasise obedience, ‘rule following’ and other such values similar to a working-class employment environment. On the other hand, middle-class schools will encourage leadership skills, etc., to prepare them for such parallel roles in the workplace. These divisions occur as children are treated differently by teachers, consciously or otherwise, depending on their class, gender or race. Marxist sociologists have argued that the education system assigns pupils to their relevant social groups according to the same social group from which they came, reducing social mobility and reinforcing inequality. Furthermore, the education system legitimates the inequality by justifying it in people’s minds that their poverty deems them powerless and that their social fate is inevitable. Thus they accept their position and become defeatists.
Hence there is little opposition to ruling class domination and sustaining the elite in their position of power. However, Pierre Bourdieu (1997) claimed that cultural capital – chiefly commanded by the middle classes – reinforced social inequality within society. The advantages of cultural capital are particularly evident in children at a young age. They can be viewed as major arguments against the Tripartite system, which divided children at eleven. Bourdieu claimed that cultural capital could be broken up into three sections. The embodied state, the culture that we already possess in our heads; the objectified state, the culture found in possessions such as art and literature; the institutionalised state, which is the culture represented in qualifications.
Therefore, success in examinations and later success within the workplace depended on whether or not the individual possessed the right culture in the early stages of primary socialisation and, therefore, serves to reinforce inequality. The dominant culture (the elite) established the standards of excellence within our schools and therefore generally possessed those elements for academic success, e.g., Cultural Capital. Cultural capital is the culture of the elite; the elite decides the curriculum, therefore, providing their own success in a structure created by themselves for themselves. According to Bordieu, this again reinforces a reproduction of class. The education system maintains the class structure by making it appear that the success of the elite and failure of the working class was an objective procedure.
The working class fail academically, not down to inadequacies but because of a lack of cultural capital. Some members of the working class have and do succeed academically and later in employment. Still, according to Bordieu, this reinforces the system further by suggesting the working class fail due to incompetence. Bordieu has been criticised by Jenkins (1992), who said that workers accept inequality not because they see it as justified but because they have no say in the matter. Bordieu assumes that education does not provide opportunities for the working class. He paints a circular picture of class reproduction and implies that social and cultural change is impossible when it quite obviously isn’t. Society and our culture reflect a very different picture of today compared to, for example, the 1960s.
The skills that are recognised by exams are exercised by the elite, not manual skills, which are arguably equally valuable. Therefore the working classes are not recognised as valuable in society. About the streaming within Comprehensive schools, Hargreaves (1967) claimed that students in higher streams had a greater commitment to their studies. They valued hard work, academic culture and compliance with authority. Bottom stream students have often deemed delinquents prone to breaking the rules, fighting, smoking, etc. By placing these pupils into streams in the first place, Hargreaves argues that the schools compound the class divisions and also exacerbate the problem by creating specific cultures. The bottom streams become more deviant and less inclined to change their stereotype due to the school’s label.
Students from the middle and upper classes remain academically successful due to souly to their social backgrounds. Parents can afford such educational aids as computers, books, trips abroad, etc., which all ensure educational improvement. Middle-class families have the finances to move to an area where they will be in the catchment area for ‘better’ schools. Children from working-class backgrounds may perhaps be less inclined towards the educational achievement for several reasons relating to their social background. Parents are less likely to be able to afford ‘extra’s such as previously mentioned. They may suffer from nutritional problems, which in effect cause ill health. Parents work long hours and aren’t always sure that their child has attended school, etc. In conclusion, middle-class families hold an economic advantage over working-class families regarding their children’s academic achievement.
In criticism of the entire Marxist approach to the educational system’s social inequalities, the Functionalists provide a different viewpoint. According to the Functionalist approach, the expansion of formal schooling was a precondition for effective economic growth and meritocratic society. Since industrialisation, society has needed to change to function, survive and prosper. The education system provides three vital functions to meet the needs of an industrialised society. The first being that the education system develops human resources for an industrial nation. In pre-industrialised society, there was no need for education as jobs were simple and often manual. Education provides the basic skills for the future labour force.
Those that are ‘clever’ and ‘motivated’ can acquire a more specialised form of knowledge necessary for professional, managerial and technical occupations. First, the education system is highly developed and structured in response to the general technical requirements of the industrial product. Secondly, industrial societies have a multiplicity of occupations with different skill requirements, varying levels of responsibility and use a sophisticated mechanism to select individuals. Therefore the education system has a vital ‘selection’ function within society. Performance is monitored by exams and grades, which are in sequence used by employers for selection purposes. Greater rewards for more demanding jobs provide incentives to work harder to attain qualifications to fill these positions.
The selection of individuals through the education system ensures those who gain better jobs deserve them based on greater achievement. Thus, the education system provides job ‘allocation’ for society. Thirdly, according to the Functionalist approach, the education system contributes to the cohesion of society by transmitting to the new generations the ‘core’ values of that society, otherwise known as the common cultural heritage. The education system provides fundamental values such as honesty, individualism, achievement orientation, respect for parliamentary democracy, etc. These basic values present a fundamental agreement despite the diversity of individuals, which help to maintain equilibrium within society. In criticism of the Functionalist approach, it has been argued that the technical and cognitive skills taught in the mainstream curriculum bear little resemblance to those skills required within employment, e.g., Latin, Sociology, Human Biology, etc.
In ‘The great training robbery’, Berg (1970) suggests that more highly qualified workers, in educational terms, are not necessarily more productive workers. Qualifications do not necessarily make you more proficient in those jobs. The schools select who is a success and a failure, but they may often misplace them in the social structure by not allowing for labelling, social class backgrounds or sex differences. Schools confirm to pupils the status to which they are born rather than being a neutral influence. Berg claims that the education system encourages ambition and aspirations through ‘glittering prizes’ when, more often than not, it dampens down their dreams by claiming that their sights have been set ‘unrealistically high’. According to King (1977 p.3), the values and ideas promoted by schools are not necessarily equal to all sectors of society; “There are many different ways of being British”.
Analysis of curriculum materials has shown that racism, ethnicity, social class, and sexist bias exist; therefore, the curriculum is only compatible with some social groups. In conclusion, of the two approaches and their view on the inequality of society through the education system, both emphasise the relationship between education, the economy and social inequality. Neither considers the day-to-day interactions between pupil and teacher. The main emphasis is on the structure of education rather than the content. Neither the Functionalist nor the Marxist approach allow for non-conformists within society. Therefore, it is difficult to conclude whether or not the education system reinforces and legitimises social inequality.
Although the evidence suggests that it does and that there are serious aspects of the system that need to be changed for a brighter future for our children, at the same time, we see success on a more intimate level in most working-class area’s. In conclusion, although it is not fully clear whether education serves to reproduce and legitimate inequality fully, it is clear that middle-class children, in general, appear to gain more from the current education system. Furthermore, it is not only the qualitative outcome or educational attainment that reinforces inequality, but also the values that education serves to convey, values that maintain the capitalist system and legitimate elite privilege and rule.
- Sociology Explained – Education P.161 (Handout)
- Understanding Education – Education and Training P.235 – 236 (Handout)
- Introductory Sociology – Education P.383 – 389 (Handout)