Education System

Until we adopt the ability to question all the structures and systems that govern our lives, many of us assume that those systems function in the favour of the average citizen. But of course, as sociologists - we know better! That is precisely why there are a multitude of varying perspectives on the role and function of the education system.

Education System Education System

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Table of contents
    • In this explanation, we'll be exploring the role and functions of the education system in sociology.
    • We'll explore the definition of the term 'education system', followed by an in-depth examination of the functions of education according to various sociological perspectives.
    • We'll also take a look at the 1944 tripartite education system, as well as the comprehensive education system - both of which are widely discussed in sociological research and theory.

    The role and functions of the education system in sociology

    The sociology of education is the study of human social relationships, patterns, events, institutions, and their development in the context of education.

    Sociologists investigate and examine people's experiences of education and outcomes by identifying trends. They study how education affects society. Sociologists analyse social phenomena at different levels and from different theoretical perspectives.

    'Education system' definition

    The term 'education system' refers to the economic, political and social structures that shape access to and experiences of education in a particular country or state.

    When studying education systems, it is helpful to understand what micro and macro-level theories are.

    Micro-level theories look at small-scale social processes, systems, and interactions. It is based on the interpretative analyses of society and the world. A macro-sociological study might investigate how institutional racism affects pupil attainment, while a micro-sociological study might investigate the effects of teacher labelling on pupil attainment.

    Macro theories analyse social systems and populations at a structural level to understand how social processes, patterns, and trends shape the lives and experiences of groups and individuals at a larger scale.

    Functions of education in society

    There are numerous theoretical perspectives or sociological paradigms on the role and functions of education. Here is a summary of these theoretical perspectives:

    Functionalist theory of education

    According to functionalists, society is like a biological organism with interconnected parts held together by a value consensus. Each piece performs a vital role in maintaining balance and social equilibrium for the continuity of society. (See Functionalist Theory of Education for more detail.)

    Functionalist theories of education draw heavily on French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), who argued that education serves the needs of society by helping pupils develop specialist skills and create social solidarity. Durkheim emphasised the importance of moral education, which is essential in the transmission of culture and role allocation or social placement.

    Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), who followed in the footsteps of Durkheim, argued that after the family (an agent of primary socialisation), education takes over as the most important agent of secondary socialisation. For Parsons, schools, like wider society, are based on meritocratic principles. People are rewarded based on their efforts and talents. Schools are the focal socialising agent; they act as a bridge between the family and wider society, teaching pupils how to navigate society.

    Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945) suggested education plays a vital function in role allocation. Schools and other educational institutions select and allocate pupils to their future roles. Inequality is a necessary and inevitable result of meritocracy; without inequalities, there would be no meritocracy. Inequalities also encourage competition which ensures the most talented and the most suitable people fill the most important positions in society, and encourages social and cultural innovation.

    Education System Illustration of people on a running track StudySmarterFig. 1 - Inequalities in a meritocratic system

    Marxist and socialist theories of education

    A Marxist view of society is based on class division. Marxists view education the same way, saying that education is based on class division and capitalist exploitation. Traditional Marxists view capitalism as a two-class system; the capitalist ruling class (the bourgeoisie) are a minority class that holds the most power in society and owns the means of production, and the working class (the proletariat) are forced to sell their labour to the ruling class. This, in turn, creates class conflict and raises class consciousness.

    Capitalism persists because the ruling class can control society through the education system. Education legitimises class inequality by producing and reproducing ideologies that create false class consciousness among the exploited working class.

    According to Louis Althusser, the state is the means by which the capitalist ruling class maintains power. The state consists of two separate apparatuses: the repressive state apparatuses (RSAs), which maintain power through physical force or the threat of force; and the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs), which use beliefs and ideas as a means of control. Education is an essential ISA that reproduces and legitimises class inequality by ensuring the working class is in a state of false class consciousness.

    Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis argue that education casts a 'long shadow of work', meaning there are close parallels between work and school. School mirrors or corresponds with the workplace as they both involve reward, punishment, uniform, and hierarchy. The correspondence principle operates through the hidden curriculum; Lessons on punctuality and behaviour are not formally taught to pupils, but pupils eventually internalise and accept them. This is essential because capitalism requires obedience and workers-compliance. (See Marxist Theories of Education for a more in-depth understanding of these theories and concepts.)

    Feminist theories of education

    Feminist theories emphasise the exploitation and marginalisation of women and girls. Feminists argue that education is an agent of secondary socialisation that enforces patriarchy and the subjugation of women and girls.

    Liberal feminists celebrate the advancement of girls' education and highlight progress that has been made in the attainment gap between girls and boys, and education today is used to promote gender equality.

    Radical feminists, on the other hand, highlight the gender inequalities that still exist in society and education. Subjects are still gendered, and the curriculum transmits patriarchal norms and values. Girls in schools are subjected to gendered violence while the media creates moral panic about the underachievement of boys. The focus on the underachievement of boys is a distraction and reflects the domination exercised by boys and men.

    Marxist and socialist feminists argue that through the hidden curriculum, pupils are taught capitalist patriarchal values, and to accept their subjugation. Boys are taught to dominate and exploit girls.

    Feminists agree that current sociological research and theories are 'malestream', meaning most people are preoccupied with understanding and explaining things through boys and men's experiences. They focus heavily on boys and marginalise and devalue the experiences of girls in the education system.

    Neoliberal and new right theories of education

    Neoliberalism is a term used to describe a set of economic and social practices, policies, and processes that work to expand free-market capitalism. Neoliberals argue that marketing education creates competition which helps improve schools. Neoliberals advocate for restricting state involvement in the lives of citizens and believe the state should not be responsible for providing education.

    Proponents of the new right are conservatives who have adopted neoliberal ideologies. They also believe that education should reflect the market and the state should not provide education for every child, simply because it cannot do so. It argues that the state cannot offer everyone adequate education, meaning that children from working-class families get left behind. Marketing education offers working-class families opportunities that the current system cannot provide. It also makes schools accountable to parents who are seen as consumers. It argues that state involvement stunts innovation, making us unprepared for the global market.

    Marketing education raises standards, which improves attainment and fosters social and cultural innovation as schools and educational institutions are constantly responding to the market. This also helps create a competent workforce and leads to greater diversity.

    Postmodernist theories of education

    'Postmodernists', as they are sometimes called, seek to move beyond functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist paradigms of understanding social interactions. They want to investigate patterns, events, and institutions. Postmodernism is a philosophical movement that arose in the 20th century as a response to modernity. It challenges the ideas and values of modernism which was characterised by individualism, industrialisation, and scientific thought.

    Postmodernists argue that we have moved from modernism to postmodernism. Society is now a lot more diverse, as well as being far more consumerist, which means that people now have more choice. In the context of education, there has been a shift. Education was once controlled centrally by the state but has now become marketised.

    Marketisation has turned schools into businesses, but it has also forced teachers to 'reskill'. Teachers are now expected to cater for a diverse student population who have different learning styles, and the national curriculum no longer only centres on British values and industrial needs; it prepares pupils to survive in a globalised world.

    Postmodernist theories of education track the advancement and changes of the education system throughout history and evaluate how education has adapted to respond to the needs of society and the economy.

    The 1944 tripartite education system

    The debate surrounding the future of education was widespread and pervasive after the end of the Second World War. In order for all children to be able to fulfil their potential through education, the UK government passed the 1944 Education Act. This involved splitting education in England and Wales into three distinct stages:

    • Primary education (ages 5 to 11)
    • Secondary education (ages 11 to 15)
    • Further/higher education

    The most significant changes to education brought about by the introduction of the tripartite system were for secondary school-goers. Namely, the implementation of the 11+ test made it so that children could be allocated to one of three types of schools for their secondary education (hence this system being called the tripartite system). The three types of schools were:

    • Grammar schools, meant for students with high academic achievements.

    • Technical schools, for students with high aptitude in technical and vocational learning.

    • Secondary modern schools, for students with more practical skills, who would only receive a very basic academic education.

    The comprehensive education system

    The comprehensive system emerged from the social democratic belief that everybody should have the same opportunities for success. As a direct answer to the inequalities of the tripartite system, comprehensive schools brought all students into a single type of school without the barrier of entrance or 11+ exams.

    You can learn more about Government Education Policies in a dedicated explanation on the StudySmarter web-app!

    Education System - Key takeaways

    • Education has many functions. Most theories agree that education is an agent of secondary socialisation transmitting values and norms.
    • Functionalists view education as an important component in role allocation or social placement.
    • Marxists and socialists believe education produces and reproduces class inequalities.
    • Feminists believe education upholds the patriarchy and teaches girls to be subservient to boys.
    • Postmodernists view functionalist, Marxist, feminist, and neoliberal theories as outdated. They seek to understand the role and functions of education in a postmodern society.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Education System

    What is the role of the education system?

    The education system is an agent of secondary socialisation used to transmit the norms and values of society, and to prepare pupils to live in society. 

    What are the five functions of education?

    Education serves many functions including; socialisation, social placement, social and cultural innovation, creating a workforce, creating social solidarity, and producing ideologies. 

    What is the role and function of education in the 21st century?

    Education in the 21st century exists to serve the needs of the people. Parents as consumers are given a choice about how and where they want their children educated.

    What does 'function of education' mean?

    In sociology, the term 'function of education' refers to the purpose that the education system supposedly does (or at least should) fulfil. 

    What is the main purpose of the education system?

    Different sociologists will offer different purposes that the education system fulfils. For instance, functionalists believe that the main purpose of education is 'role allocation', whereby school-goers learn the future roles that they will carry out for the functioning of society. On the other hand, Marxists argue that the purpose of education is to perpetuate the capitalist system and existing class inequalities. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is an example of social solidarity?

    Which one of these policies was not introduced by the Education Act of 1988? 

    To what extent do feminists agree with functionalists and Marxists about the role and functions of education?

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