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Sociological Perspectives On Education

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2358 words Published: 19th May 2017

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During the nineteenth century the founding fathers of Sociology such as Marx, Comte and Durkheim, wanted to accomplish their political objectives by using scientific methods. They wanted people to be convinced of the validity of their views and felt that the best way to achieve this would be to go about this in the most effective way by means of natural science and research methods. Sociologists thus tried to explain how the social system worked. One of the main areas within a social system is education. All children between the ages of five and Sixteen are obliged to attend school, and during term time school children spend over half their waking hours in the classroom. Education in Britain is free and is provided by the welfare state, it is also compulsory, parents who do not send their child to school are breaking the law. According to sociologists in order to have a fully functioning society the members would ideally have to be educated to carry out their role within that society, or society may ‘fall apart’. This essay will include a brief look at the history of education and how it has developed into the system we now have today. This essay will also look at two sociological theories on education; Functionalist and Marxist,. Within each of these theories this essay will also highlight three main perspectives; social class, gender and ethnicity.

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The 1944 Education Act was a significant piece of social and welfare legislation, it required Local Education Authorities to provide state-funded education for pupils, up to the age of 15, that incorporated, to quote, “instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes”. The act was devised by Conservative MP Rab Butler (1902-1982), from this came the introduction of the tripartite system which comprised of; Grammar schools for the more academic pupil, Secondary Modern schools for a more practical, non-academic style of education and Technical schools for specialist practical education. Pupils had to take an examination called the 11-Plus and the result of this indicated which type of school the child would be allocated to. Secondary education now became free for all and the school-leaving age rose to 15. The tripartite system could be seen as a way of dividing classes, as it was usually the children from more affluent families that passed the 11-plus examination. (Bell, 2004; MOC; Murray, 2009).

In 1965 comprehensive schooling was recommended by the Labour Government in document called the Circular 10/65. The new comprehensive system suited children of all abilities in contrast to the tripartite system. The school leaving age was raised to 16 in 1973. The comprehensive system aimed to eradicate the class divide from the British education system. (Bell, 2004; MOC; Murray, 2009).

The 1988 Education Act saw the introduction to the National Curriculum. All education in state funded school was to be made the same and made sure that all school children received the same level of education. Compulsory subjects were introduced which included maths, English, science and religious education. The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) was introduced to replace O-levels and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE). This was another way of trying to make state education classless. (Bell, 2004; MOC; Murray, 2009).

Over the years theories of education have been in and out of fashion this was mostly due to which political party was in power at the time and the state of the economy as the two are very much linked. During the 1950’s Functionalism was the dominant force within sociology. During the war the education system had been neglected and was seen as been in a pretty poor state. By the 1970s, structural tensions, inflation, economic stagnation and unemployment, meant that Marxism and other critical theories like Feminism and anti-authoritarian Liberals became far more influential. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

The education system was undemocratic, unequal and unfair. Marxists like Raymond Boudon argued that positional theory determined educational success or failure, he is well-known for his studies into of the role of education on social mobility. It was your position in the class structure that gave you an advantage, or a disadvantage, in the competitive world of education. However for Pierre Bourdieu, the working class lacked what he referred to as cultural capital; without which they were doomed to failure. Cultural capital included the valuable cultural experiences of foreign travel, museums, theatre and the possession of a sophisticated register and middle class norms and values. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

The functionalist perspective was the dominant theoretical approach in the sociology of education until the 1960’s. When considering education functionalists usually ask questions such as; What are the functions of education? What part does it play in maintaining society? What are the relationships between education and other elements of our social system?

A typical functionalist response to such questions sees education as transmitting society’s norms and values, for example a child that learns to respect the rules at school he will learn to respect society’s rules as an adult. Functionalists believe that various parts of society work together for the mutual benefit of society as a whole so therefore education and the economy go hand in hand and school is preparation for the world of work. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope, 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

Emile Durkheim was one of the founding fathers of sociology and provided the basic framework for functionalist view of education. He believed that for society to operate efficiently individuals must develop a sense of belonging to something wider than their immediate situation. The education system plays an important part of this process. In particular, the teaching of history enables children to see the link between themselves and the wider society. Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist who further developed Durkheim’s ideas. He argued that in modern industrial societies education performs an important socialising function. Education helps to ensure the continuity of norms and values through transmitting the culture of society to new generations. Parsons saw the school as a bridge between the family and the wider society. Within the family the child’s status is fixed at birth but in wider society new status is achieved through work, friendships and relationships. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

Parson’s also saw that schools prepared children for their roles in adult society through the selection process. Students are assessed and sorted in terms of their abilities and this helps to allocate them to appropriate occupations. Students are also allocated certain occupations in relation to what sex they are, typically girls would be seen as going into more stereotypically ‘feminine’ roles such as secretaries, hairdressers, beauticians, nurses /care givers or homemakers; whereas boys would be seen as going into more stereotypically ‘masculine’ roles such as doctors, builders, mechanics, plumbers or firemen. Boys are also seen as being more scientific than girls. However many of these roles are now being integrated by both sexes. Conversely the roles of being care-givers and homemakers are still seen as being innate in females. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

The Marxist perspective on education differs from that of the functionalist. In Marx’s words the ruling class ‘rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas’. These ideas justify their position, conceal their true source of their power and disguise their exploitation of the subject class. A French Marxist philosopher called Louis Althusser argued that no class can hold power for long simply by the use of force. The use of ideas provide a much more useful means of control. He also argued that the education system in modern times has taken over the role of the church as the main agency for ideological control. In the past people accepted their status in life and saw it as being God’s will. Nowadays however people tend to accept their status and role within society from the way in which they have been educated. The upper and middle classes are primed to become the ruling class and the owners of industry, the lower classes are primed to become the workforce. They are taught to accept their future exploitation. Althusser argues that ideology in capitalist society is fundamental to social control. He sees the educational process as essentially ideological. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

For Bowles and Gintis, the education system propagated a hidden curriculum where the working classes learnt to know their place, to obey rules and were also socialised to accept that inequality was natural and inevitable. They also claim that education legitimates social inequality by broadcasting the myth that it offers everyone an equal chance. It follows that people who achieve high qualifications deserve their success. So in other words education is seen as a reward system, those who work hard and gain a good education will have access to the top jobs. Bowles and Gintis stated that ‘Education reproduces inequality by justifying privilege and attributing poverty to personal failure.’ (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

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Both Marxists and functionalists have been criticised for seeing people as being nothing more than creatures of the social system, thus Bowles and Gintis see teachers as the agents of capital the students as its victims and their situations being shaped by factors which are out of their control. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

In modern day Britain there is a general consensus of opinion that education should be based on equal opportunities. Everyone should have an equal right to develop their abilities to the full regardless of their age, class, ethnicity or gender. However there is clear evidence that in educational terms those who have certain social characteristics are more likely to achieve better results than others, so this shows that there is a distinct relationship between social class and educational attainment. Throughout the twentieth century there is evidence to show that the higher an individual’s social class, the more likely they are to have a greater number and higher level of educational qualifications. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

Gender has always been an issue in education. Should both sexes take the same subjects? Do both sexes have the same abilities and aptitude? The introduction of the 1944 Education Act was concerned with enabling free and equal education for all. However there is still a worry that discrimination against girls still takes place throughout the educational system. To feminists this is a reflection of the patriarchal nature of modern industrial society. The school curriculum has become increasingly similar for boys and girls. However, where choice is available, there is still a tendency for girls to choose some subjects and boy’s others. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

There is no concrete evidence within the education system to prove whether a student’s ethnicity has any effect on their examination results. Statistics on school leavers and their examination results are a snapshot at one point in time. Individuals may want to ‘catch up’ on their education once leaving school by attending local colleges. There is evidence to show that ethnic minorities are likely to do this. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

“The Swann Report (1985), officially called ‘Education for All’, was a government report advocating a multicultural education system for all schools, regardless of institutions, location, age-range or ethnicity for staff/pupils. The report provided clear data on ethnicity and educational attainment, discovering that racism had a causal effect on the educational experiences of black children in the UK.”

(Griffiths and Hope, 2000).

The statistics shown in the Swann Report were drawn from local authorities with a high ethnic concentration. So therefore it could be said that they weren’t a true depiction of ethnic educational attainment throughout the whole of the country. However due to mass immigration into this country in the last five years some children who come from different ethnic backgrounds are at a disadvantage due to cultural language barriers. (Browne, K, 2005; Griffiths & Hope , 2000; Haralambus & Holburn, 2008)

This essay included a brief look at the history of education and how it has developed into the system we now have today. It also looked at two sociological theories on education; Functionalist and Marxist. The feminist perspective was touched upon when relating education to gender. Within each of these theories essay highlighted three main perspectives; social class, gender and ethnicity. To conclude there are still many barriers to gaining a good education for some of the children in this country due to their class, social stratification, gender or ethnicity. The rich are more likely to get better grades and job opportunities. However some children / young adults may cross the divide and become better educated and move to a high class as an educated adult.


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