The Functionalist Perspective on Education

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 meritocracyfunctionalist-perspective-education

1. Creating 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.

2. 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 specialize when we do GCSEs.

3. Teaching us 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. 

4. 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

Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education

  1. School performs positive functions for most pupils – exclusion and truancy rates are very low
  2. Role Allocation – Those with degrees earn 85% more than those without degrees
  3. Schools do try to foster ‘solidarity’ – PSHE
  4. Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses
  5. Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)

Negative Evaluations of Functionalism (Criticisms)

  1. Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – e.g. private schools benefit the wealthy.
  2. Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying/
  3. Postmodernists argue that ‘teaching to the test’ kills creativity.
  4. Functionalism reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.


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Sociology of Education Revision Bundle

Education Revision Bundle CoverIf you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:

  1. 34 pages of revision notes
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
  4. how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education

You might also like my brief vodcast on the same topic…

Test Yourself:

The Functionalist Perspective on Education Key Terms Quiz (Quizlet)

Related Posts

Sociological Perspectives on Education – Summary Grid

Evaluating the Functionalist Perspective on Education

The Marxist Perspective on Education

The New Right View of Education

The Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Views of Education – A Comparison

Related Online Sources

Twynham’s Sociology Pages offer an OK round up of The Functionalist Perspective on Education (written by an ex-student)

This post from Podology (also by a student) is also OK – written as an essay (no title given), but it does tend to just juxtapose criticisms from other perspectives

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23 Responses to The Functionalist Perspective on Education

  1. Pingback: The Marxist Perspective on Education | ReviseSociology

  2. Pingback: The New Right’s View of Education | ReviseSociology

  3. Pingback: The Functionalist Perspective – Class Notes for A Level Sociology (Year 2) | ReviseSociology

  4. Pingback: Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Perspectives on Education | ReviseSociology

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  6. Pingback: Evaluating the Functionalist Perspective on Education | ReviseSociology

  7. Well drafted,.

  8. Pingback: 12CSO3 Homework 5.10.16 – sociologyreadingblog

  9. Morris Maedza says:

    thank you I am now a changed individual. your points are self explanatory

  10. oliver says:

    i need help on this question;

    explain how sociological perspectives help us understand the existence of social institutions.

    • Hi – to get you started… the basic stance of Functionalism is that institutions are necessary to social harmony and generally perform positive functions, the Marxist line is that they exist for the benefit of the elite, and enable them to maintain control over the masses.

    • mutetwa says:

      yeah its true the points are correctly explained are eas to understand

  11. Anonymous says:


  12. Anonymous says:

    I was wondering whether you could explain the Functionalist view on a Meritocratic society

    • Yes – they basically think it’s a foundational principle of an advanced industrial society – meritocracy is a means of ensuring the most talented are allocated to the most appropriate jobs while it also prevents everyone else not getting bitter about differential reward.

    • Jimela Dora says:

      For me as a functionalist, I view the world from bottom up.Elitism should be seen on merit. That the group who has the ability and talent to lead progress in an organization should be given the chance to lead and not because of class privileged wealth or hereditary traits. Such systems should reward the champions who take bold steps to move changes even in the face of adversity. The education systems, be it lower secondary, or higher education has always been a meritocracy.

      • That’s a nice ‘in the words of a functionalist’ explanation! Remember that this view is a myth according to Marxists.

      • Jimela Dora says:

        It is a myth in disorder. The causal factor is that men miss abrogate the truth and correct way of doing things. For instance, PNG is ingrained with a culture of “its whom you know” rather than “what you know” systemically and systematically.

    • Anonymous says:

      I think I have answered this question. Have you realized that the education system has always been meritocratic? Individuals get rewarded for their talents as what they do is transparent enough for all to see and not because of age or how long they have been in the system that matters.

  13. Valuable post!!! Being a book worm is not education. Education is learning the manners, etc.

  14. sinead says:

    is there anything in the education system that a functionalist would see as negative or do they believe that there is no down side to it, such as social inequalities?

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