The Marxist Perspective on Education

According to Traditional Marxists, school teaches children to passively obey authority and it reproduces and legitimates class inequality.

Last Updated on March 2, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Traditional Marxists see the education system as working in the interests of ruling class elites. According to the Marxist perspective on education, the system performs three functions for these elites:

  • It reproduces class inequality – middle class children are more likely to succeed in school and go onto middle class jobs than working class children.
  • It legitimates class inequality – through the ‘myth of meritocracy’.
  • It works in the interests of capitalist employers – by socialising children to accept authority, hierarchy and wage-labour.
Marxist theory of education - mind map

The main source for the ideas below is Bowles and Ginits (1976): Schooling in Capitalist America. These are the two main sociologists associated with Traditional Marxist perspective on education.

The reproduction of class inequality

This means that class inequalities are carried from one generation to the next.

Middle class parents use their material and cultural capital to ensure their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced

The Legitimation of class inequality

Marxists argue that in reality money determines how good an education you get, but people do not realise this because schools spread the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – in school we learn that we all have an equal chance to succeed and that our grades depend on our effort and ability. Thus if we fail, we believe it is our own fault. This legitimates or justifies the system because we think it is fair when in reality it is not.

This has the effect of controlling the working classes – if children grow up believing they have had a fair chance then they are less likely to rebel and try to change society as part of a Marxist revolutionary movement.

If you’d like to find out more about the above two concepts please see this post on ‘the illusion of educational equality‘ in which I go into more depth about educational realities and myths, as theorised by Bowles and Gintis.

Teaching the skills future capitalist employers need

Bowles and Gintis suggested that there was a correspondence between values learnt at school and the way in which the workplace operates. The values, they suggested, are taught through the ‘Hidden Curriculum’. The Hidden Curriculum consists of those things that pupils learn through the experience of attending school rather than the main curriculum subjects taught at the school. So pupils learn those values that are necessary for them to tow the line in menial manual jobs, as outlined below.


  • Passive subservience  of pupils to teachers corresponds to Passive subservience of workers to managers
  • Acceptance of hierarchy (authority of teachers)  corresponds to Authority of managers
  • Motivation by external rewards (grades not learning)  corresponds to being Motivated by wages not the joy of the job

If you want a more in-depth post on this 1976 Marxist Theory you might like to read this post: Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle.

Evaluations of the Traditional Marxist Perspective on Education

Positive evaluations

  • There is an overwhelming wealth of evidence that schools do reproduce class inequality because the middle classes do much better in education because the working classes are more likely to suffer from material and cultural deprivation. Meanwhile, the middle classes have more material capital, more cultural capital (Reay) and because the 1988 Education Act benefited them (Ball Bowe and Gewirtz).
  • The existence of private schools is strong supporting evidence for Marxism – the wealthiest 7% of families in the United Kingdom are able to buy their children a better education which in turn gives them a better chance of getting into the top universities.
  • There is strong evidence for the reproduction of class inequality if we look at elite jobs, such as Medicine, the law and journalism. A Disproportionately high number of people in these professions were privately educated.

Negative evaluations

  • Henry Giroux, says the theory is too deterministic. He argues that working class pupils are not entirely molded by the capitalist system, and do not accept everything that they are taught – Paul Willis’ study of the ‘Lads’ also suggests this.
  • There is less evidence that pupils think school is fair – Paul Willis’ Lads new the system was biased towards the middle classes for example, and many young people in deprived areas are very aware that they are getting a poor quality of education compared to those in private schools.
  • Education can actually harm the Bourgeois – many left wing, Marxist activists are university educated for example.
  • The correspondence principle may not be as applicable in today’s complex labour market where employers increasingly require workers to be able to think rather than to just be passive robots.

Neo- Marxism: Paul Willis: – Learning to Labour (1977)

Willis’ research involved visiting one school and observing and interviewing 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school during their last 18 months at school and during their first few months at work.

Willis argues pupils rebelling are evidence that not all pupils are brainwashed into being passive, subordinate people as a result of the hidden curriculum.

Willis therefore criticises Traditional Marxism.   He says that pupils are not directly injected with the values and norms that benefit the ruling class, some actively reject these. These pupils also realise that they have no real opportunity to succeed in this system.

BUT, Willis still believes that this counter-school culture still produces workers who are easily exploited by their future employers:

The Counter School Culture

Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. This value system was characterised as follows:

1. The lads felt superior to the teachers and other pupils
2. They attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’
3. The objective of school was to miss as many lessons as possible, the reward for this was status within the group
4. The time they were at school was spent trying to win control over their time and make it their own.

Attitudes to future work

  • They looked forward to paid manual work after leaving school and identified all non-school activities (smoking, going out) with this adult world, and valued such activities far more than school work.
  • The lads believed that manual work was proper work, and the type of jobs that hard working pupils would get were all the same and generally pointless.
  • Their counter school culture was also strongly sexist.

Evaluations of Willis

  • On a positive note this study does recognise the fact that working class lads are not simply passive victims of a ‘middle class’ education system – they play an active role in resisting that system.
  • The study lacks representativeness – Willis conducted his research with a sample of only 12 working class white boys in just one secondary school, and most of the research was built on interviews with just 6 of these boys.
  • Willis has been criticised for being overly sympathetic with the boys – at one point when he was with them on a coach going on a school trip and they were vandalising the bus he just let them do it, he could be accused of going native!
  • This study is now over 50 years old and so one has to question whether it is still relevant – the education system, experience of education and working classes are so much different today compared to the mid 1970s!

For a more in depth summary of Paul Willis, please see this post which focuses more on the research methods.

Contemporary research applied to Marxism

A range of contemporary research evidence offers broad support for the view that education continues to reproduce social class inequalities, or at the very least fails to prevent it by improving social mobility in England and Wales.

The disadvantage gap

According to some quantitative research by the Institute for Education and the Nuffield Foundation (2022) there is a persistent- disadvantage gap among pupils by GCSES.

In 2018/19 only 41% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved at least grade 4 or C in English. and maths compared to 69% of pupils from wealthier backgrounds who are not eligible for free school meals.

This means there is an education attainment gap of around 28% at GCSEs when we compare the poorest students with the rest.

While the results of all students have improved significantly since 2007/08 this disadvantage gap has remained almost level.

The disadvantage gap continues post-16

According to some research conducted in 2021 by the Education Policy Institute there is also significant disadvantage gap in post-16 education.

Disadvantaged students achieved on average 3 grades less across their best three subjects at A-level or BTEC compared to non-disadvantaged students, with disadvantaged students being defined as those who had been eligible for free school meals during at least one of their previous six years at school.

The study also found that disadvantaged students were more less likely to take the more prestigious A-levels and more likely to take BTECs, the later being correlated with lower wages compared to A-levels later on in work, suggesting that the education system reproduces class inequality overall.

Lockdowns harmed poor kids more than rich kids

According to The Sutton Trust’s October 2022 briefing on Education Recovery and Catch Up students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are much less confident than students from higher socio-economic backgrounds that they have caught up with lost learning caused by the Tory government’s chosen policy of locking down schools during the pandemic.

Further research by the Sutton Trust also reveals that the Pandemic and the chosen government response to the Pandemic had a differential effect on the career aspirations of young people.

Children from Independent schools were less likely to change their career aspirations due to covid compared to children from state grammar or independent schools.

This triangulates with the findings when we compare changing aspirations with household deprivation. Children from the most deprived areas were more likely to change their career aspirations because of Covid than those from the least deprived areas:

Although you could interpret the evidence above as criticising the Marxist perspective on education:

When schools close, the confidence and aspirations of poor kids decline more than for rich kids, which you might interpret as evidence that when schools are open they have a relatively positive impact on the social mobility of poor kids.

HOWEVER, given the pre-pandemic research above, it’s clear that schools and colleges over all have done very little indeed to improve social mobility in England and Wales between 2007/08 and 2019, the year before lockdowns, and lockdowns were still a government policy which harmed poor kids more than rich kids.

Exposure to elite peers helps rich kids more than poor kids

Moving away from the UK, A 2022 study from Norway found that exposure to elite peers from elite educated families increases the probability of a student themselves enrolling for elite education. 

The study found that if students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are exposed to elite peers, they are more likely to enrol in elite graduate programmes, but the same is true if students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are exposed to elite peers. 

And the ‘enrolment to elite universities effect’ is twice as much for rich students compared to poor students. 

This means that elite-peers do more to reinforce the reproduction of class inequality than to encourage social mobility.

Other Related Posts on the Marxist Perspective on Education

Other related posts on other aspects of Marxism and related perspectives on Education

Sources/ Find out More

  • Bowles and Gintis (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America
  • Paul Willis (1977) Learning to Labour

Essay Plans/ Revision Resources

Education Revision Bundle Cover

If 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

4 thoughts on “The Marxist Perspective on Education”

  1. The moment you put race in the middle, credibility goes out the window.

    Your generalizations are why this ideology fails, as it fails to identify key individual factors rather than reducing a complex plethora of things in to an almost radical view of things.

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