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What Ways Social Class Impacts On Educational Experiences

Education is an essential part of an individual’s secondary socialization. It teaches and encourages children to learn and conform to the norms and values that are expected of them in their particular society. In Britain, pre-industrialization, an education system didn’t exist. However, with the rapidly expanding economy there became a greater necessity for specialized schooling that would create an educated, capable and skilled workforce. Most Western societies such as Germany, Holland and Switzerland achieved some sort of national system for education by the mid-1800s. Britain, however, was far more reluctant and compulsory education wasn’t established until between 1870 and World War II. Since its creation, the education system has gone through many changes and developments to what it is today, introduced by the Labour government in 1997, comprehensive in nature; nursery, primary, secondary, further and higher education.

Before the 1994 Education Act was introduced, schooling in the UK was unorganized, with all children only being educated up until the age of fourteen. The Education Act began to see several major changes, including raising the school leaving age to fifteen, free secondary education for all and attempting equality and opportunity for all, regardless of their class. Although, with the Education Act came to a tripartite system that establishes three types of schooling; grammar, technical and secondary modern. Allocation to each of these schools required children to sit an eleven-plus examination, to identify which of these schools they would be best suited to. Those that successfully passed attended grammar or technical school. The tripartite system itself established a number of problems. This education-based system was a major advantage to those from the middle classes.

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Sitting on a formal assessment was something that the middle classes were more used to or had more experience in as they could afford to get private tutoring to help them gain exam practice. The exam’s language was middle class, ensuring that the majority of the success was more likely to come from the dominant classes. Between 1965 and 1979 the Labour Government tried to rectify these schooling problems by introducing a comprehensive school (a secondary school) that accepts pupils of all abilities. Their aim was to make sure that all children were to be educated exactly the same regardless of their class, ethnicity and gender leading to greater equality and acceptance of diversity. However, what they failed to recognize was that educating such a mixed ability group would allow those with less ability to go unnoticed and therefore never being able to show or reach their full potential.

This is the reason why the Conservative Government from 1979 to 1997 introduced New Right policies such as assisted places, national curriculum, league table and parent’s charter which only reinforced social class differences in education, with statistics to prove it. Marxists believe that the education system is unequal and unfair. Their argument is that it is entirely based on a social class system and it is not at all meritocratic. It is a capitalists system whereby the rich (the bourgeoisie) stay rich and the poor (the proletariat) remain poor, therefore, the whole of the education system is in place and is designed to benefit the bourgeoisie. Student values, personality and attitudes are shaped within education to make them useful for capitalism and to make money for society. Bowles and Gintis (1976) state that the main role of the education system is to provide capitalists with a workforce that has been ‘shaped’ (i.e. by personality, attitudes and values) therefore making them more useful, docile and obedient workforce.

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Bowles and Gintis believed that this ‘shaping’ begins in the classroom and is done by teaching the pupils norms and values through a ‘hidden Curriculum’. This hidden curriculum teaches pupils to be flexible, obedient, and punctual and to have respect for those in an authoritarian position (i.e. teachers). Those that conform will be rewarded, yet those who do not conform will be punished. Bowles and Gintis studied 237 members of a school in New York and can to the conclusion that these pupils have no control over what is taught to them and when given orders, they are expected to obey without ever questioning it. This is a pattern that is taken from the education system and into the workplace, therefore, producing passive and obedient workers. Bowles and Gintis also discovered that jobs within society are dictated, for example, working-class children will be more likely to be employed in working-class jobs because during their entire educational experience it is probable that they are labelled as failures, which will bring about a lack of motivation and interest and will therefore cause them to underachieve at school.

Yet the best jobs, those that are most enticing with the highest job satisfaction are usually reserved for the middle classes. Marxists also believe that privileges cause unequal levels of education within society i.e. the middle classes are more privileged than the working class. Most working-class children will not even be able to choose what school they attend. Due to the postcode lottery, schools are usually allocated to what area the child lives in (generally the school closest to their home). Most of these working-class schools will have large class sizes, low quality of education therefore fewer future opportunities. And because of the lack of capital available, they will have less access to resources such as books, educational trips, a room of their own to study in, own their own computer, have a private tutor or go to a private school. The middle classes, on the other hand, have far more choices and opportunities when it comes to education. Firstly they are more likely to be able to afford private education, therefore can choose the school and its location.

Children that attend these private schools will have small class sizes, good quality of education and better future prospects than those in the working classes because there is more encouragement from their school, teachers and parents for them to succeed. Life chances are also privileges and don’t just include what goes on within the classroom. These can be recreational activities such as sailing, piano lessons etc. Again, those in the ruling classes are more inclined to have the opportunities to carry out these extra-curricula activities because they can afford to do so, or it could be that the private school that the child attends is more likely to have them as part of the curriculum. Health is another issue that will affect and concern all classes in relation to education. An individual’s housing status can have an impact on the individual’s health. Conditions of a person’s housing are a contributing factor.

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Those in the lower classes will possibly live in cold, damp and overcrowded environments and may have a less healthy lifestyle, for example, eat more fatty foods and do less exercise which means they are more inclined to have days off school due to bad health. The middle/upper classes will have a better concept of a healthier lifestyle. They have the advantage of being able to afford luxuries such as healthier food, going to the gym or even a personal trainer. Functionalists believe that a takes over from the family as the focal socializing agent as it acts as a bridge between the family and society as a whole preparing individuals for their adult role (Talcott Parsons 1961). For this system to survive there must be some sort of degree of compatibility i.e. there must be an agreement about values /or value consensus. Functionalists state that if everybody in society agrees with these values, are all the same and are evenly distributed, we are all similar (act, think and believe the same way) then all institutions will function correctly, and therefore, so will society.

Functionalists argue that education performs a number of key functions, with particular emphasis on stability; Promotes social solidarity through learning the social rule of behaviour from one generation to the next. Promotes cooperation through the learning of the social rules of behaviour. These are backed through sanctions whereby people are socialized effectively to help them become more effective workers. Therefore, functionalists, unlike Marxists, have little or no problem with the hidden curriculum. And finally, it helps develop all the special skills needed in society which include essential skills such as literacy, numeracy and cooperation. People are able to locate their most appropriate role in society as a result of their experiences in school. Functionalists are also keen to highlight that the education system is meritocratic.

Everyone has equal opportunities for achievements, and that their position or reward is based on effort or ability. Education is a way of allocating individuals into their social roles which are usually done through ‘merit’. Individuals are filtered so that they can be allocated the most appropriate job for them in society. The education system will then provide them with the skills; values and attitudes that they will need to be successful within their job so will therefore be able to contribute as much as they can to society and the economy. Emile Durkheim (1858) found that the vital task of the education system was “the welding of a mass of individuals into a united whole”. In other words, people from all backgrounds, regardless of their race, gender, class etc need to form a united society. He believed this could be done by teaching subjects such as history (so they can see themselves as part of something bigger than just themselves), English (to learn a common language), and by having a national curriculum that will instil norms and values to all race, creeds and classes.

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Durkheim also believed that the function of social institutions was to promote and maintain social cohesion and unity. The role of society is therefore to bond people from all different cultures and classes. Davis and Moore (1967) saw the education system as a means of role allocation but linked it more to the system of social stratification. They argued that inequality is a natural feature in society because people are born with different talents. Children of professionals do better in their education and those of manual workers do poorly. The function of education, therefore, is to allocate and recruit people into a wide range of positions in society. For society to function, all these occupational roles must be filled. Davis and Moore believed that the most important jobs such as doctors need to be given to the most qualified and most intelligent individuals. This is done through a ‘sifting and sorting ‘ process, linking it to the school – if you are a working-class child at a poor school, their job is likely to be poor also.

Marxism and Functionalism are both macro-structural theories that look at society as a whole, ignoring small groups and/or individuals. Marxism theory looks at the way the social structures of society affect the working classes, while functionalism looks at the social structures but emphasizes harmony, integration and stability. Therefore Marxists and functionalists have completely different ideologies on the education system. Functionalists believe it to be meritocratic, the idea that everyone has equal opportunity to achieve, or that position and reward is based on effort or ability, which Marxists reject.

They believe that educational status is based upon social class rather than meritocracy. Both perspectives argue that occupational roles are dictated i.e. working-class children will get working-class jobs, but both fail to recognize that there are some manual workers children that do well in education and therefore do find a successful job. It has nothing to do with nature or DNA. Marxist views are too deterministic; they focus too much on the class system and ignore other important factors such as gender and ethnicity. And it is extremely unlikely that all children internalize all the norms and values that are transmitted by the teacher and/or the hidden curriculum.


  • Giddens, A.,2001, Sociology,4th ed, Cambridge, Polity Press.
  • Haralambos & Holborn., 2002, Themes and Perspectives,5th ed, London, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Class Notes

  • Covington, P.,2008, Sucess in Sociology, Haddenham, Folens Publishers

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What Ways Social Class Impacts On Educational Experiences. (2021, May 04). Retrieved May 18, 2022, from