• Functionalism and Education

    Functionalism and Education

    What have traditional explanations of education suggested about attainment in schools?

    Learning targets:

    • According to Functionalists, education has three roles - socialization, skills provision and role allocation.

    • Education helps to support society by the socialisation of young people to cultural values.

    • Education categorizes people to the posts to which they are best suited according to their talents through the use of examinations and qualifications.

    • Everyone has the opportunity to succeed in society on the basis of their ability.

    • Schools operate according to meritocratic principles, and status is gained on the basis of merit.

    Key questions

    (AO1) What is functionalism?

    (AO1) How do functional sociologists view the education system?

    (AO2) What support is there for functionalist views of education?

    (AO2) What criticisms can be made of functional views of education?

    Summary of key points

    Functionalism is a view of sociology that suggests that the role of a sociologist is to look at the workings of society, in a scientific manner, in order to discover how it works. Holmwood (2005) and others have said that social phenomena exist because there is a purpose for them. This is controversial; it leads to the view that many negative things such as crime exist because they fulfil societal needs.

    Writers in the structural functionalist tradition of sociology claim that the education system is a meritocracy and that the education system exists to allow the most talented students through to fill the most important jobs in society. Testing of ability through examinations is one of the most fundamental elements of the British education system. British children are among the most tested in the world and this is controversial for a number of reasons, including the emotional impact of regular testing on children.

    Emile Durkheim (1858 - 1917) was a French sociologist and is known as one of the Founding Fathers of the discipline. Many of his ideas became the foundations of structural functionalism. He was interested in education and trained teachers for part of his career. He believed that education had a number of purposes (or functions) for society.

    The first of these is to reinforce our sense of belonging and community (social solidarity). This is done is schools in a number of ways, but it can be seen best in those things which unite people and make them feel part of a group. Think of uniforms, sport activities and competitions against other schools. The study of history gives us a sense of the continuity of our culture.

    The next role of education is to maintain social roles and social rules (social order). Schools are like a wider society in miniature, so pupils learn that some people have more power than others, manners are important. They learn the patterns of behaviour that will help them to survive in society when they leave school.

    According to Durkheim, the final function of education is to sort people out to do the correct work for their ability (meritocracy). In modern societies, we have division of labour. Nobody has all of the skills that are needed to survive in our complex world. Durkheim said that schools pass on the general values of society to students and also provide the skills that they will need to work together and produce goods. People must specialise in the kind of work that they do; we have plumbers, carers, check-out operators and doctors. Society could not survive if we did not have people to do different work. People sit examinations, they are sorted out and then encouraged to take up jobs that is suited to what they are able to do. The most able will study the subjects that will encourage their thinking skills, and the low ability children are taught what they need for life.

    In the USA, Talcott Parsons (1902 - 1979) developed Durkheim's ideas. For Parsons, the most important agency of secondary socialisation is education. Schools pass on the norms and values of wider society and we learn the rules that apply outside the home. The values that we learn in school apply to all of society, not just our own homes. However, schools have a more serious function than that. They also prepare us for future life. To do that, they act as a form of social selection, choosing what students will do for their future adult roles. Schools are competitive and the best students will go on to the best jobs whereas weaker ones will have to take low pay and low status work. Schools teach children that it is fair to have different rewards and so they teach children to be competitive.

    The values that American schools pass on to children are achievement and equality of opportunity. They reward those who have high levels of success and encourage children to work hard to achieve those rewards. In addition, examinations are held under equal conditions and students have equal access to the high grades as the system is impersonal. This means that students learn to accept that the system is a fair and equal one.

    In 1945, Davis and Moore, following on from Parson's writings and Durkheim's logic suggested that if education systems are unequal, then there must be a functional reason for this inequality. They argued that inequality is necessary and universal because all societies have inequalities. In effect, if it exists, then it must be because it is for the good of society. This analysis became an influential piece of work as it justified the high pay and status of the richest people in society.

    The basic argument is that some jobs and positions are more important to society than others. People who are in these special jobs must have skills and personal qualities that set them apart from other people. It is important for society that the best people fulfil these roles even though they may require huge amounts of work and may not always be pleasant. Very few people have the skill and talent for the best jobs. In addition, a lot of training is required for the top positions. People who undergo extended educational training to get those jobs or those who study hard, often give up a lot to do so. They may work long hours and have no personal time for fun. This is known as deferred gratification; people work hard now for the sake of possible pleasure in the future. People will not do this unless they feel that it brings them some form of advantage over other people.

    They must therefore be given an incentive to sacrifice their time so they should be rewarded in the form of excellent pay and rewards. Their pay and rewards should be significantly better than everyone else has to act as an incentive for them to work hard. Thus, social inequality is a good thing for the whole of society as only those who deserve the best rewards can have them. More than that, because society is unequal, it is clear that inequality serves a purpose for society as a whole, otherwise it would not happen.

    Surprisingly, this type of thinking influenced some members of the Labour Party in the 1960s, such as Antony Crosland who became Secretary of State for Education and Science. He thought that one way to make society more equal was to make competition between pupils within schools more equal. This led to the policies that created comprehensive schools.

    In 1971, another writer developed the ideas of Davis and Moore. Turner suggested that the education system operated to allow some early selection of very able children from the lowest sections of society for the top jobs through mechanisms such as grammar schools and examination systems. Thus education is a ladder of opportunity that people can climb or not depending on their ability and effort. Turner also recognised that some people strive and do not succeed, so schools need to provide systems to encourage the best, but to let the less able be happy with their situation and to accept that they are not good enough for the top jobs.

    Criticisms of structural functionalism

    One of the most famous critics of Parsons was Alvin Gouldner who wrote in the 1970s at the height of student rioting against the Vietnam War. He said that structural functionalism says that we are socialised by education. The education system is meritocratic so the best people get the best jobs. People who do not fit in are deviant. So, how come it was all the best and most intelligent who were deviant enough to complain about the war, the lack of equality for Blacks, homosexuals and women and who challenged traditional ways of thinking?

    Whilst Parsons wrote a great deal, he did not do much practical research and although he considered himself a scientist, there is little research evidence to support his ideas. This is a weakness because it is difficult to test his theories.

    In addition, Parsons and structural functionalists seem to confuse cause and effect. They argue that certain social phenomena exist because they are needed by society. If they are needed by society, they must fulfill a function for that society. By that logic, women take care of children in our society because that is what they do. This does not take into account all of the other reasons why women care for children, such as socialisation or even male dominance, which is what feminists would argue. There are many factors that influence how cultures develop that are not good for society: racism, sexism and differences in power, but functionalism appears to overlook these.

    Structural functionalists suggest that societies wish to be stable and not to change, so they fail to explain changes to society. In reality, societies appear to undergo massive changes, and sometimes in quite a short space of time. Consider changes that have taken place in the role of the genders in the last 50 years or so.

    Structural functionalism seems to believe that people all share the same values and morality in society. This is difficult to prove. There are many different social groups which all have very different points of view and patterns of behaving. Norms that apply to one group in society do not necessarily apply to another; for example, many youth cultures are openly critical of mainstream society.

    Alternative perspectives as they apply to the study of education

    Conflict or Marxist theory

    Education is part of the bourgeois hegemony. Education is a crucial part of the system of social control where we are taught to believe in the dominant ideology of the capitalist state structures. See Bowles and Gintis, Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour and Randall Collins.

    Radical theories

    These vary but are usually some aberrant form of Marxism. The usual suggestion is that formal structures of education alienate those it exists to serve so children and adults should learn through choice and experience. See A S Neill’s, Summerhill, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society and the work of the Brazilian writer, Paulo Friere

    Sociology of knowledge

    Again this is linked to Marxism, but is more usually associated with the branch of sociology known as phenomenology. Knowledge is a way that experts have of controlling us. This is not as influential a theoretical viewpoint as it once was.


    Theories are concerned with what is happening in the classroom and with teacher labelling of students. Key ideas include the hidden curriculum and ‘C’ stream mentality.

    See Hargreaves, Lacey and Michelle Stanworth.

    Cultural theories and Socialisation

    The concern with this type of theory is the differing success rates in the education system of children from differing circumstances. These look at two basic themes -

    Material circumstances - Children fail because they are deprived of the basic necessities of life. See Frank Field and Wedge and Prosser

    Parental values - Children fail because of cultural reasons such as ‘poor’ parenting skills or a severely deficient linguistic ability. See Kohn, the Newsons, Basil Bernstein.

    What should you have in your folder of notes on this topic? (AO1)

    Definitions of the key concepts





    Social order


    Deferred gratification

    Ladder of opportunity




    Independent study


    • A mind map or spider diagram that identifies the strengths and weaknesses of functional accounts of education.

    • Notes taken from an A level textbook or a website on functionalist views of education.

    • A list of each of the writers and theorists mentioned in this booklet and a 50 words or fewer summary of their main points about education.

    • One good paragraph either in support of or criticizing functionalism as a viewpoint.

    Extension work

    • Do the gap-fill exercise on http://www.educationforum.co.uk/sociology_2/functionalist.htm. Print it out and add it to your notes.

    • Use one of the names of the writers or theorists in this section of your notes and put them into a search engine to see what useful information you can find to add to your notes.

    • Write up your essay plan notes as a full essay with additional detail added from other sources and books that you have researched

    Useful websites and sources of information (AO1):

    You should use the website of the NgfL Cymru and look at the ebook to develop your notes


    Look at Cliff’s notes on educational theory and add some to your folder http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/Theories-of-Education.topicArticleId-26957,articleId-26914.html


    Add some of Chris Livesey’s detailed notes to your folders by downloading and reading http://www.sociology.org.uk/function.doc

    Use Wikipedia, but treat it with care as it is sometimes incorrect



    Tbhere is detailed notes and reading to be found on this site http://www.educ.utas.edu.au/users/pthrosse/Ed4-99/HaraHolborn.htm

    More about functionalism as a perspective



    A downloadable summary of the functionalist view of education with evaluations http://homepages.uwp.edu/goldsmip/education/Functism.pdf

    A summary page and a multiple choice quiz can be seen at http://home.clara.net/chrisgardner/sls1/tests_access/ed6/edpersps_multi6.htm

    Here is a useful summary PowerPoint to download http://www.angelfire.com/scary/helstonsociology/AS%20Education/The%20UK%20Education%20System%203.ppt

    Here is a sociology of education blog that has a number of entries relating to educational theories http://sociofeducation.blogspot.com/2009/09/theories-of-schooling-and-society.html

    Find an essay on the Helium website


    AO1 Knowledge and understanding

    What is structural functionalism?

    What do functionalists believe is the main purpose of the education system?

    What three functions of education did Durkheim identify for the education system?

    What did Parsons say that students must learn to accept?

    Why do you think Davis and Moore’s views are popular with the ruling classes in our society?

    What impact did the theories of Davis and Moore have on the history of the British education system?

    How did Turner develop the ideas of Davis and Moore?

    What criticism did Alvin Gouldner make of functionalist views of education?

    What other criticisms have been made of functionalist views of education?

    Explain how functionalism can be criticised by using one alternative perspective to the study of education.

    Outline and assess functionalism views of the education system.

    What do functionalists say about education? Summarise their basic principles.

    What evidence and theories do functionalists use to support their views about education?

    Either: how can functionalism be criticised?

    Or what have other theories said and how can these be used to criticise functionalism?

    Summative conclusion: What is the overall view that you have as to the usefulness of functionalism


    • 1. May 18 2012 10:53AM by Councilflat

      Do have a read of this related article, The Myth of Educational Opportunity, which looks at meritocracy's rightful place in society, and how we instead focus on equal opportunity http://bit.ly/JQhXJs

    • 2. Feb 13 2016 8:28AM by simon shitlhabane

      good and clear information keep the work done

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