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Inequalities in Education Essay

The sociological study of education looks at the way different social institutions affect the process of education and how this impacts on students. Education is widely perceived to be a positive social institution where individuals can acquire knowledge and learn new skills. However, some would argue that this is not the case and that education produces an unequal society and is a negative institution where individuals are socialised to accept such inequality. This essay will explore the inequalities in education to establish how they occur. By examining Marxist, Functionalist and Interactionist perspectives, explanations for such inequalities can be understood.

Historically, in Britain formal schooling was a preserve of higher social classes. Education was largely provided by private institutions, such as churches form the middle ages onwards, with an aim to provide the bureaucratic elite with a means to run government. The state first assumed full responsibility for education in 1870, with the Foster’s Education Act. In 1880, school attendance was made compulsory up to the age of 10, ensuring basic primary education for all. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) The state took responsibility for secondary education with the Fisher Education Act of 1918 and attendance was made compulsory until the age of 14. The formal leaving age was raised again on two occasions, in 1947 to 15, and to 16 in 1972.

By 1900 only 1.2 per cent of pupils stayed in education after the age of 17 and by 1939, 5.8 per cent of pupils stayed in education past the age of 17, but it was not until the 1960s, when polytechnic universities were introduced, that everyone capable of benefiting from higher education was able to attend a higher education establishment. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) However, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of the 1980s began to view education in terms of the needs of the economy and started to reduce state economic investment. Thatcher’s government had a general mistrust of the liberal and free-thinking culture of higher education institutes and began to restrict spending in Arts based subjects. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) The 1988 Education Act introduced the common national curriculum, which provided guidelines for teachers about what they were required to teach. (Giddens, 2001) The National Curriculum was introduced to ensure that everyone would receive the same basic level of education.

In western societies there is a general agreement that education should be based on an equality of opportunity. However, there is evidence to suggest that people with certain social characteristics succeed more than others. (Kirby et al, 1999) Sociologists have focused on social background to explain the relative failure of working class children compared to middle class children. Evidence suggests that the higher a person’s social class, they are more likely to achieve greater education success. The most obvious explanation for differences is the intelligence of the individual. The 1944 Education Act established the tripartite system. Children were allocated to one of three types of school, grammar, technical or secondary modern, on the basis of the results of an intelligence test, taken at 11 years, the eleven-plus. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004)

Grammar schools provided an education for those who performed highly on the eleven plus, while other pupils who has a lower score were taught in either a technical or secondary modern school. The eleven plus examination showed a correlation between social class, where more middle class children scored highly and therefore gained places at grammar schools. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) However, Britain has a differential educational system that gives people the right to privately educate their children if they wish and can afford to. League tables of schools, which are published every year, show consistently show private schools, such as Eton, Cheltenham Ladies College and Harrow, are the best achieving schools.

Hans Eysenck, was a bio-psychologist who believed that genetics play a fundamental part in determining IQ. Eysenck wrote “What children take out of schools is proportional to what they bring to schools in terms of IQ” (Eysenck, 1971: Cited in Taylor et al, 2000) From this viewpoint it is possible to argue that class differences in educational achievement are largely based from class differences in genetically based IQ. However, most sociologist emphasise the importance of environmental factors in determining IQ differences, namely motivation, knowledge and skills, which are learnt rather than genetically predetermined. In this case class differences in educational attainment may be due to class backgrounds rather than class genes. (Taylor et al, 2000) Many sociologists have also argued that the language used in IQ tests favours the middle classes, as it is closer to their spoken language.

A variety of figures demonstrate the continued inequality in educational achievement by social class. The Youth Cohort Study, conducted in 2002, collected data on 7,238 18-year-olds. The results of the study show that 75 per cent of those with professional parents were still in education as opposed to 55 per cent of those whose parents have few skills. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) Not only were those with higher-class parents more likely to continue to education, their qualifications likely to be higher as well. Just 22 per cent of children of routine workers had at level three qualification compared to 65 per cent of those children with professional parents. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004)

With the election of the Labour government in 1997, there was a return to the concern of equal opportunities in education. The Labour party was elected on a promise to improve the education system. However, by the late 1990s, the language had changed with concern being expressed for social exclusion and improving standards rather than class inequality. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) Social exclusion relates to the alienation of certain groups, connected to a person’s class, living standards and education. The close relationship between low levels of education and social exclusion has been highlighted in recent years. Failure to acquire basic skills such as literacy and numeracy can place a person at a distinct disadvantage.

Functionalists view society as being structured with many integrated segments which work together to form society as a whole. Each of theses segments, such as the economy, judiciary and education, perform crucial functions to satisfy the needs of society and create a harmonious society. Functionalists view education as one of the most important components of society. According to Emile Durkheim, education is the “influence exercised by adult generations on those who are not yet ready for social life.” (Durkheim, 2003, Page 28) Durkheim asserted that moral values are the foundation of cohesive social order and that the education system has a responsibility to teach a commitment to a common morality. (Kendall, 2005) Education has an important role in the socialisation by enabling children to internalise social rules which contribute to the functioning of society. Talcott Parsons argued that the role of education is to instil the value of individual achievement in a way that the family can not.

Education is the main source of secondary socialisation in the same way that the family is the main source of primary socialisation. (Giddens, 2001) In the modern society, individuals are judged by what they have achieved and schools prepare pupils for this by measuring success with graded examinations. For Parsons, schools operate on meritocratic principles, where pupils are treated equally and if pupils work hard they will achieve the most merit. This teaches children through the values of achievement and the value of equal opportunity, which is important for functionalists because it ensures that the best people will fill the most important positions in future careers. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) Individuals will accept their position as they believe that everyone has been given the same opportunities through education. Pupils will achieve success through ability and hard work irrespective of other social factors, such as social background, ethnicity and gender. While the functionalist view of education is very positive, predominantly issues of inequality are denied. Marxists have a very different view of the purpose of education.

Marxism is a structural perspective of society, which focuses on the class struggle and exploitative relationship between the ruling class and the working class. The struggle begins with the opposing interests of the ruling class, who control the economy, and the working class who sell their labour to earn an income. (Giddens, 2001) Bowles and Gintis write from a Marxist perspective, which is highly critical of the capitalist society. Like Karl Marx, Bowles and Gintis argue that work in capitalist societies in exploitative and alienating for the workforce. The main role of education in the capitalist society is in the reproduction of labour power. The first and major role of education is to provide the capitalists with a workforce with personality and attitudes most useful to them, or more simply, a subservient workforce. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004)

The education system helps meet these needs and objectives through the hidden curriculum. It is not what pupils learn from lessons and examinations that is important, but the form the teaching takes and the organisation of the school day. The hidden curriculum shapes the future workforce by promoting subservience, encouraging an acceptance of hierarchy, fragmenting lessons and motivating students with external rewards as opposed to the pleasure of learning. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) With the acceptance of hierarchy, pupils learn to take orders, obey them and accept they have little control of the subjects they study, all in preparation for the relationships they will have with future employers.

Bowles and Gintis believe that the formal parts of the curriculum correspond to the needs of capitalist employers by providing a surplus of skilled labour. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) Marxists reject the view that the education system is meritocratic and believe that social class is the most important factor influencing achievement. While Marxism and Functionalism focus on how society affects educational attainment, interactionist sociologists look at how individuals can shape their own experience.

Labelling theory was developed by Howard Becker in his study of deviance but was later applied to the way teachers interact with their pupils. Becker wrote from an interactionist perspective, which is a non-structural approach to sociology and emphasises an individual ability to control actions. (Giddens, 2001) Becker interviewed sixty teachers from Chicago and found that they have a tendency to share the same picture of an ‘ideal’ pupil. The ‘ideal’ pupil is highly motivated, intelligent and well-behaved, pupils who were judged to be closest to this ideal were likely to come from middle class backgrounds. Those furthest away from the teachers ‘ideal’ were most likely to come from working class backgrounds (Taylor et al, 2000) As a result those from working class backgrounds were labelled as having a lack of discipline, unmotivated and unlikely to achieve.

These labels can have a significant effect on their educational success in the result of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true. For example if a teacher tells a pupil that they are not very good with English frequently, it is likely the pupil will underachieve in English classes and examinations. (Taylor et al, 2000) Although, labelling theory seems to hold true and have resonance in practical scenarios, it is probably too simplistic to explain educational inequalities in full. The theory largely implies that individuals have control over their life and ignore structural influences on the individual.

Meritocracy holds that all pupils have an equal opportunity to succeed irrespective of background; statistics seem to disprove this notion. The key factors leading to educational inequality seem to be related to economic background. Functionalists argue that schools operate meritocratically, a Marxist would say that this is just an ideology that does not work in practice. The ideology makes people believe that the educational system is fair but really only serves the interests of the ruling class. M.S.H Hickox questions the Marxist view that there is a close correspondence between education and economic developments. For example, compulsory education was introduced after the onset of industrialisation, so for a long time capitalists did not employ a workforce that had been shaped by the ‘hidden curriculum’. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) The formal curriculum is not designed to teach the skills needed by employers or create uncritical passive behaviour, which would make workers easier to exploit.

Subjects, such as A Level Sociology, do not promote an unthinking student but in actual fact promote critical thinking. However, Marxists argue that educational institutions transmit a dominant ideology which serves the interests of the ruling classes. (Giddens, 2001) Functionalists argue that if students work hard and are able they will achieve. However, the relationship between academic achievement and occupational reward is particularly close. Many students leave university and are unable to find suitable employment and income seems to be only weakly linked to qualifications. (Giddens, 2001) The hidden curriculum is supposed to promote subservience in pupils, this ignores the fact that many teenage pupils have little regard for rules and respect for teachers. Labelling theory may be more appropriate for understanding this type of behaviour. Durkheim assumes that societies share the same values which can be transmitted through the educational system, which is untrue in today’s multi-cultural society.

Many inequalities in education can affect achievement and success, which appear to be related to economics. Functionalists view education as a meritocracy where all individuals have an equal opportunity to succeed irrespective of social differences. However, Marxists strongly disagree with this and believe that it is almost predetermined before a pupil starts school whether they will achieve or not.

Interactionists believe that personal experience of schooling is important for determining success or failure. However, no theory offers a plausible and complete explanation for educational inequality. Personally, I believe that a compromise between social action and Marxist theory should be made to address educational inequality. I am personally not convinced that there is any particular merit to functionalist theory, as it appears to deny issues of inequality.


Durkheim E (2003) Moral Education, Reprint Edition, Dover Publications Inc, LondonGiddens A (2001) Sociology, Fourth Edition, Polity Press, LondonHaralambos and Holborn (2004) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, Sixth Edition, Harper Collins, LondonKendall D (2005) Society in Our Times: The Essentials, Fifth Edition, Thomson Wadsworth, ChicagoKirby et al (1999) Sociology in Perspective, Heinemann Educational Publishers, LondonTaylor et al (2000) Sociology in Focus, Causeway Press, Bath

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