Last Updated on September 12, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Functionalists focus on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs:
1. Creating social solidarity
2. Teaching skills necessary for work
3. Teaching us core values
4. Role Allocation and meritocracy
Education Creates Social Solidarity
We have social solidarity when we feel as if we are part of something bigger. Emile Durkheim argued that school makes us feel like we are part of something bigger. This is done through the learning of subjects such as history and English which give us a shared sense of identity. Also in American schools, children pledge allegiance to the flag.
Durkheim argued that ‘school is a society in miniature.’ preparing us for life in wider society. For example, both in school and at work we have to cooperate with people who are neither friends or family – which gets us ready for dealing with people at work in later life.
Learning specialist skills for work
Durkheim noted that an advanced industrial economy required a massive and complex Division of Labour. At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialise when we do GCSEs.
The most obvious examples of this function of education are in the compulsory sector, especially with vocational education where students learn the specific skills required for particular professions – everything from engineering and construction to media and IT technicians and beauty therapy.
Durkheim believed that one of the most impressive things about modern education systems was that they simultaneously taught us core values and a sense of belonging to the whole (See below) while at the same time they teach us the DIFFERENT and DIVERSE skills that a modern economic system requires to function.
Education teaches pupils core values
Talcott Parsons argued that education acts as the ‘focal socializing agency’ in modern society. School plays the central role in the process of secondary socialisation, taking over from primary socialisation. He argued this was necessary because the family and the wider society work in different principles and children need to adapt if they re to cope In the wider world.
In the family, children are judged according to what he calls particularistic standards by their parents – that is they are judged by rules that only apply to that particular child. Individual children are given tasks based on their different abilities and judged according to their unique characteristics. Parents often adapt rules to suit the unique abilities of the child.
In contrast in school and in wider society, children and adults are judged according to the same universalistic standards (i.e they are judged by the same exams and the same laws). These rules and laws are applied equally to all people irrespective of the unique character of the individual. School gets us ready for this.
The above ties in quite nicely with the modernisation theory view of development – achieved status is seen as a superior system to the ascribed status found in traditional societies.
Role Allocation and meritocracy
Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy.
Functionalists believe that meritocracy is extremely important for peace in society because people will only accept status and wage differences if those in lower status jobs believe they themselves had (or have) a fair chance to climb the ladder and get a higher status and better paid job themselves.
Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education
School performs positive functions for most pupils most of the time – even though students might not want to go to school sometimes and not necessarily enjoy school some of the time, the majority come out after 13 years of formal schooling as reasonable human beings.
There does seem to be a link between education and economic growth, suggesting a good education system benefits the wider society and economy. All countries in Western Europe have very good education systems while many poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have many more problems with their education systems, such as low attendance rates.
Exclusion and truancy rates are relatively low, suggesting there is very little active resistance to schooling.
Schools do at least try to foster ‘solidarity’ – through PSHE lessons and teaching British Values for example.
Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses. If you look at post-16 education especially there is a lot of diverse courses offered and it it is difficult to see how technologically advanced post-industrial economies could function without a thriving post-16 and university sectors.
Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)
Criticisms of the Functionalist View of Education
It is usual in A-level sociology to criticise one perspective using other perspectives, but in the case of Functionalism there are many more stand alone criticisms that we can make!
Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – wealthier students from higher socio-economic backgrounds still, in 2022, get better results than poorer students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this is true within the state school system , but the largest difference in achievement is between the 7% of very wealthy students who attend fee paying independent schools and the 93% who attend state schools.
HOWEVER, there is evidence that a disadvantage gap opened up during school lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, with poorer students falling further behind than richer students, this actually suggests that when schools are open as usual, they at least narrow that achievement gap to an extent!
Marxists would also argue that the Functionalist view of education is ideological – the fact that it focuses on the postive functions of education means it reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.
The Functionalist perspective on education was developed in the late 19th century (Durkheim) and the 1950s (Parsons) – during modernity, but with the shift to postmodernity society has changed and the British school system seems to have adapted with it.
For example, schools today focus more on developing the individual rather than teaching duties and responsibilities that individuals should adopt towards society – it’s more about the individual and less about solidarity (following the shift from modern to postmodern society)
Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying and there are a minority for who it doesn’t work, such as those permanently excluded. If we were to do the kind of in-depth research Interactionists prefer we might find that a significant minority of children are harmed during school in more subtle ways.
It is difficult to argue that schools performed any of the above four functions during the disruption caused by the government’s response to the pandemic, especially not being judged by universalistic standards (no standardized exams) or meritocracy (because private school teachers inflated their students’ grades more than state school teachers).
Video summary of the Functionalist Theory of Education
Contemporary Evidence to Evaluate Functionalism (2022 update)
Students need to be able to evaluate sociological perspectives using contemporary evidence and a lot has happened in the last few years, most of the evidence suggesting that the Functionalist view of education is extremely limited in helping us to understand the role of education in society.
Below I consider five pieces of contemporary evidence mainly from 2020-2022 and what they suggest about some of the key ideas of Functionalism as applied to education.
The shift to the Ebacc
The government plans to make 90% of pupils sit GCSEs from with the Ebacc suite of subjects by 2025. This will result in a more similar experience of education for 14-16 year olds studying towards GCSEs and the Ebacc as the Ebacc consists of a relatively narrow range of subjects: English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language.
On the surface this move away from allowing students to have more choice in what they study could lead to more of a shared collective conscience and thus solidarity and value consensus as students are taught a higher proportion of rational (e.g. a lot more science) and critical subjects – so more students might finish their GCSEs thinking more similarly.
The ArtsProfessional blog points out that this will result in more students from more deprived backgrounds studying subjects NOT on the approved Ebacc list because such students are more likely to do seven rather than nine GCSEs – and they have to do seven from the list above as part of the Ebacc. This means we could have poorer students being excluded from creative subjects and P.E. because these aren’t on the list, while richer and more able students do the seven Ebacc subjects plus two or three other GCSEs of their choice.
It’s also likely that more able and affluent students will get better results in their Ebacc and have a more rounded subject base because of their additional subjects, while less able and poorer students end up with only Ebacc GCSEs and weaker results.
So the net effect of making students sit a narrower range of subjects is an increase in the inequality of outcomes along class lines, which goes against the idea of meritocracy as it reproduces class inequality.
The Problem with PREVENT and British Values
The requirement to teach British Values in schools started in 2015 and emerged out of the PREVENT agenda, which required schools to intervene when they suspected (mainly Muslim) children were being radicalised and drawn into terrorism.
The government defines British values as democracy, respect for the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance and respect for those with different faiths – and the theory behind getting students to think about what ‘being British’ means is that it might to create a new tolerant and respectful national identity based on these values and help prevent radicalisation and terrorism.
OFSTED’s vision is that British Values are embedded into the curriculum and taught through several critical thinking subjects such as history and english – through which students learn about the historical struggles for democracy and the emergence of civil society. Ideally, students would also be taught to think about whether these values are universal beyond Britain.
However, according to a 2018 article in the Conversation it is highly unlikely that the requirement on schools to teach British Values is going to promote Value Consensus in any meaningful way.
Some schools, for example, confuse British Values with British stereotypes and get students to do projects such as doing collages of what Britishness in involving pictures of the Queen (or now King) and fish and chips, which hardly promote critical thinking.
A second problem is that these values are so general that each of them can be interpreted in many different ways, and they are also full of contradictions.
For example, there are different forms of democracy, other than our first past the post system, and ‘individual liberty’ is context dependent and clearly has its limits, but where? And as to the rule of law: Boris Johnson didn’t even respect that during lockdown so that is laughable. Hence any discussions around what the specifics of these values should mean could potentially reveal or even open up divisions between pupils.
There is also a problem that the whole PREVENT and British Values agenda emerged as a response to Islamic fundamentalism – it could potentially lead to further marginalisation of Muslim children in schools as the implicit message is that it’s mainly targeted at making Muslim children conform to this new Britishness (whatever that is!)
The EU Referendum in 2015 firmly split the UK population down the middle, with approximately half the population voting to stay in the EU and half voting to leave.
This is the only time that the UK Population has been offered the chance to vote directly on a specific social policy and the fact that it divided the nation in half suggests that there is no meaningful value consensus around the idea of how Britain should relate to the wider world.
And clearly if there is no value consensus in adult society, schools have roundly failed to foster any sense of value consensus on this issue during the last five decades!
Graduate Labour Market Statistics
The 2021 Graduate Labour Market statistics suggest some broad support for education performing the role allocation function, where a tiered education system sifts and sorts people into higher and higher skilled roles.
86.7% of graduates were employed in 2021 compared to 67.2% of non-graduates:
And graduates were three times as likely to be in ‘highly skilled’ jobs compared to non-graduates, suggesting that going to university successfully sifts most graduates into higher skilled jobs.
HOWEVER there are still around 25% of graduates who end up in lower skilled jobs so clearly the system isn’t that effective, and it’s also clear that going to university is NOT the only way to secure a higher-skilled job.
According to the 2021-22 apprenticeship data The total number of people doing apprenticeships in 2021-2022 was approximately 750 000, with the main sectors being health and social care and business administration.
The majority of people doing apprenticeships are under 25 and this suggests that apprenticeships are working alongside more traditional further and higher education institutions (colleges and universities) to further perform the function of role allocation.
The numbers of people doing apprenticeships certainly aren’t sufficient to suggest that apprenticeship, work based learning is undermining the role allocation function being performed my colleges and universities.
Sociology of Education Revision Bundle
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:
- 34 pages of revision notes
- mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
- short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
- how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education
Signposting/ Related Posts
This post has been written primarily for students studying the education topic, as part of the AQA’s A-Level Sociology course.
The Functionalist perspective on education is usually the first discrete topic taught within the sociology of education module.
After reading this post you might like to read this Evaluations of Functionalism post which discusses the strengths and limitations of this perspective in more depth
After Functionalism students usually study The Marxist Perspective on Education which criticises much of what Functionalists say about the topic.
A related perspective is The New Right View of Education which is usually taught as an updated and modified version of Functionalism, more relevant to society today.
You might also like this summary of perspectives on education grid, although you might need to squint to see it (update pending!)
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