Education System in Contemporary Society

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The complete system of education has always been under observation and scrutiny since it started out as elementary education. Concerned in this area are a number of sociological theorists who have formulated their own ideas into the role purpose and function the education system provide in society. These observations and ideas have resulted in three main theories, Functionalist theory, Interactionist theory and Marxist theory. Throughout this essay we will be evaluating the extent of which their key ideas reflect in the contemporary British education system.

Functionalist theory is mostly concerned with the different structures of society and how they function together. This theory concentrates on the three main functions of education as a whole this being the selection function, the economic function and the socialization function. The theorists also state these have functional relationships between education and the social system. Functionalists argue that education provides structure for society by transmitting idea of value consensus, homogeneity and social solidarity. This is supported by one of the key functionalist theorists Emile Durkheim (1900’s). He suggests that our moral order acts as a central value system. The education system is shaped by the principles of this moral order. This system begins by examining the relationship between the structure of society and the function of the education system as a sub system of this society. Durkheim says:

“Society can survive only if there exists among its members a sufficient degree of homogeneity education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child, from the beginning, the essential simulation that collective life demands”

Emile Durkheim(1956)

Meighan.R. And Siraj Bladtchford I (1997)

A Sociology of Educating (P. 244)

Continuum: London

Schools main objective is therefore transmitting the norms and values of society and this can be divided into three areas-

– Social solidarity

– Social rules

– Division of labour

This means that schools are transmitting general values necessary for homogeneity and specific skills, which ensure diversity for social co-operation. He argues that schools do this through the curriculum and the teacher. A topic can only find its way into the curriculum if it is part of the common collective culture. The teacher should encourage homogeneity through group work, allow children to realize their contribution towards societal goals and be able to survive in society. He say that the pupil is seen as a blank sheet ready to be filled and that their understanding of common social values should be taught with care and reasoning. Another functionalist theorist Talcott Parsons was influenced by Durkheim and most of his work is an extension of Durkheim’s. Parsons agrees that socializing is achieved through the operation of an integrating system common to everyone in society. However he says that:

“The main structure of personality is built up through social interactions”

Parson (1964)

Meighan R. and Siraj Blatchford. I (1997)

A sociology of educating ( P 248)

Continuum: London

He suggests that the church, the family and the education system act as agencies of socialization. He also suggests that society has certain specific roles that a person can fit into depending on their part in the social system. According to Parsons, education acts as a bridge between the family and society. The family is the primary agent for socialization, we are judged in terms of the role we occupy. Education is the second agent of socialization and we are judged in terms of our achieved status and values. This view holds resemblance with Durkheim as he also suggests that the classroom is a miniature version of society, children can learn how to behave and fit into their roles. However Parsons also suggests that these roles depend on achievement through exam success.

Functionalists describe this as meritocratic success as if you achieve through exam you are rewarded by being given a higher status in society. They say that this is of equal opportunity because anyone can succeed. Parson argues that testing students this way allows schools to match their talents to specific job roles, he termed this function as role allocation, an extension to Durkheim’s division of labour, which has been extended further by Davis and Moore. They are concerned with social standardization and say that most able people compete for top job positions in society and achieve this through exam success. This being most important for ensuring talented people fill these positions in society. They state inequality is needed for a modern society. Education therefore acts as a sifter which grades individuals in terms of talents. Most able are rewarded economically through well paid jobs.

However this theory has been criticized, as the ‘values and norms’ which Durkheim state are those which may be of the ruling class. Meritocratic principles have also been criticized by Karabel and Halsey who comment:

“The inequality of educational opportunity was not only that it was unfair but also inefficient”

Karabel and Halsey (1977)

Public and independent schools created division in education alongside banding and streaming which is not based on meritocratic principles. Also, exams are not testing intelligence but ability to regurgitate facts. It can be also be questioned that in today’s society the most functionally important jobs are not always the best paid as pop stars and sports stars are getting paid more than teachers and nurses. It might be that sex, race and class are more important for achievement.

Marxist theory contradicts the functionalist theory, they state that economy is centrally important as it determines social and cultural superstructure. They believe education serves the interests of the ruling class therefore schooling is a principal tool for socio-economic oppression and exploitation.

“The ideas of every age are those of the ruling class”

Marx (1818-1883)

For them, profits are of main importance and so workers must be reproduced to provide for this. This is done by reproducing skills needed for as efficient workforce and by reproducing ruling class ideology. This will be possible through successful education. Schools promote docility, passivity and obedience, which Marxists see as immoral. Bordieu, a Marxist theorist describes schooling as cultural reproduction. He says that they are middle class institutions run by and for the middle class and although works through a formal curriculum this and the assessments are all geared towards the middle class.

The middle class children who attend are at an advantage because they know how the system works and can achieve through this. Cultural reproduction is also visible as there is optional schooling available for the upper class and by having this Britain encourages division of class and inequality. Another theorist, Allthusser describes schooling as an ideological apparatus which teaches the rules of the order established by class domination and he says that this is continually being reproduced.

Bowles and Gintis describe schooling as economic reproduction. Their theory is called the correspondence theory and it is based on the idea that different levels of education send workers into different levels with in the occupational structure and that regardless of qualifications, your job would depend on your class. They state that schooling replicates relations of production in society when older. This theory criticises the functionalist theory by saying that it is not meritocratic because exams, curriculum are all run for the middle class (Bordicu). However both the functionalist and the Marxist theory are similar, because they treat education as a process of social reproduction but differ in their picture of society which is being reproduced. Functionalist sees education necessary for teaching students norms and values to keep society happy whilst Marxist see it as pronouncing false consensus.

A few criticism of this theory are that socialism may not be the answer to capitalist nature and Karabel and Halsey suggest that social systems also face same problems as capitalism. All classes have benefited from education, but what could be argued is working class benefiting no more than middle class.

The last theory which is the Interactionist theory was initially recognised by Mead (1863-1931) and Webber(1864-1920) unlike functionalist theory base their perspective on their image of human not their image of society. They base their theory on actions (symbols) of humans constantly changing to fit the action of other humans (actors). For functionalists socialization is stability in the social world and for Interactionists it is negotiations between members which create constructed relations which constantly change. Marxism points to domination of forces whilst interaction points to freedom of individual. Ervin Wolfman (1958) supports the Interactionist view and says that role taking is a fundamental mechanism of interaction as it allows us to see what our actions mean to others. Schools engage in interactions between students and teachers and students and students there interaction are of importance because they may affect the way in which one performs.

Howard Becker states that these interactions can cause teachers to have impressions of an ideal pupil and subsequently this affects the teaching. He also states this as a form of labelling because it affects the attitudes of a teacher, a students and interactions within the class. If pupils cannot move on from this labelling, according to Cicourel and Kituse they will move towards the self fulfilling prophecy. If a teacher has labelled a child as ‘dumb’ or ‘thick’ they may believe this themselves and start acting this way. This can also take place through streaming in schools and as Stephen Ball states this causes stigma. Hargreaves et al (1975) points to factors such as appearance, attitudes to discipline, likeability and behaviour for contributing to how teachers define students.

This theory is criticised for being impressionistic in their research methods, however their points are valid and have been found evident through research.

In evaluation the functionalist theory corresponds with the British Contemporary society as meritocracy was a key issue in 1944 when the tripartite system was introduced, exam success allowed role allocation to take place. Durheims division of labour idea is portrayed through the three tier schools system. The Marxist theory corresponds with this society as meritocracy was seen as unequality of opportunity by Marx and this was also recognised by the government when they abolished the 11+ exam due to this reason in 1988.

Correspondence theory is reflected through the tripartite system as it reproduces top jobs for the higher tier [grammer] and low paid jobs for the lower tier[secondary- modern]. According to Marxists, economy was centralized and this is reflected through market forces during the time thatchertite politics was used to establish comprehensive schools in 1988. Interactionists idea of labelling in schools was evident during the tripartite system for these reasons banding and streaming in schools were abolished. This theory has been proven through research by Hargreaves and articles prove that labelling and self- fulfilling prophecy still takes place today.

To conclude, all three theories relate to the education system in different respects. However, the Interactionists theory is unlike the other two theories it is not made up of abstract structures or conflict theories.

Interactionists theory is more related to the education system today and how everything is up to the individual. Choice of school, subject and job is now down to parents and pupils. Interactionists views of better communication improving relations between cultures is evident through the education reform acts and the media. This relates mostly to the education system of today.

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