Last Updated on April 3, 2020 by Karl Thompson
Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim and Parsons argue that education systems are meritocracies and that they perform positive functions such as secondary socialization and role allocation, but how valid are these views today?
Before you read the material below, make sure you have a clear understanding of the functionalist view of education. You should have notes, organised into at least four points which functionalists make about the role of education in society. Then read/ watch the material below and annotate your notes, linking each piece of evidence to a particular aspect of the Functionalist theory of education, stating whether the evidence supports or critics that particular aspect of the theory (of course, some of the evidence might be ambiguous).
Evidence you could use to evaluate the Functionalist view of education
NB the evidence I present below is far from the only evidence you can use. I have tried to select a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources. You might have your own, more recent evidence you can use to evaluate Functionalism!
Whatever evidence you’re using You need to consider how valid, reliable and representative each piece of evidence is! It might be useful to brush up on your research methods knowledge before looking at the material below!
Education Yorkshire: The Case of Musharaf
Educating Yorkshire was a documentary which aired on British T.V. back in 2013. In terms of methods it used a variety of non participant observation (filmed) and interviews with mainly the students.
Musharaf was one of the main characters from this first series, and to my mind this clip is one of the best pieces of supporting evidence for the functionalist view on education – it’s a really positive story. Watch it to find out more, it’s all in there: especially solidarity at the end!
Cross National Comparisons
Cross National Comparisons suggest support for the Functionalist view that formal education and qualifications are functionally advantageous for society as a whole, as they are correlated with a society’s level of economic development.
Human Development statistics show a clear relationship between improved education, higher skilled jobs and economic growth. In the most developed countries such as those in Northern Europe children spend more than a decade in full time education, with the majority achieving level three qualifications (A level or equivalent) while huge numbers of children in Sub-Saharan Africa receive only a basic primary or secondary education, with actual enrolment figures in school much lower, and only a few going on to level three education or level four (university level).
You can use Google Public Data to compare a range of Education Indicators across a number of countries
Of course as a counter-criticism, it’s worth keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation in every country.
School Exclusion Statistics
Exclusion statistics suggest that the education system doesn’t act as an effective agent of secondary socialisation for every child, although the numbers of exclusions are small, with only 5% of pupils being given a fixed term exclusion and only 0.1% being permanently excluded.
However, some types of student are much more likely to be excluded – boys are three times more likely than girls, FSM students 4 times more likely than non FSM and Black-Caribbean and mixed white and Black-Caribbean 3 times more likely than the figures as a whole, suggesting that school works better for some types of student than others, which is something Functionalists do not consider.
Extension work: if you’re interested you can read more about the limitations of school exclusion statistics here.
School Absentee Statistics
You get a very different picture of absenteeism depending on which set of stats you look at!
Statistics on persistent absenteeism show that one in nine, or 11% of pupils are routinely absent from school, missing more than 10% of school in any one term –and the numbers are much higher for special schools, for boys and FSM students.
HOWEVER, if you look at the overall absentee rate (which looks at number of sessions missed for all students, rather than individual students) then the absentee rate is much lower – it stands at around 4.8%
So whether you see these statistics as supporting evidence for Functionalism or as criticizing Functionalism is kind of open to interpretation!
The correlation between employment and education
Employment statistics from the ONS demonstrate a strong correlation between educational level, employment skill level and income – those with GCSEs earn 20% more than those without GCSEs and those with degrees earn about 85% more than those with only GCSEs. This set of statistics from The Poverty Site further demonstrates that those with poor GCSCEs/ no qualifications are approximately five times more likely to either be unemployed or in low paid-work (less than £7/ hour) compared to those with degrees. This demonstrates at least partial support for the theory or Role Allocation – the higher your qualification, the better paid job you get (although this says nothing about whether this is meritocratic).
This more recent survey of graduate compared to non graduate earnings backs this up – post graduates earn more than graduates, and graduates earn more than non-graduates…
To simplify it – for 16-64 year olds, on average, graduates earn about £8K more a year than non-graduates and postgraduates earn another £8K year a more than graduates.
More recent data from the Labour Force Survey shows that those with a level 4 qualification earn almost twice as much as those with no qualifications, in 2019.
And data from 2018 suggests that working age graduates earn £10 000 a year more on average than non-graduates.
However, the gap between the earnings of non-graduates and graduates has narrowed in the last decade… .In 2005 graduates earned 55% more than non-graduates, but by 2015, they only earned 45% more.
Criticising the view that schools are meritocratic, A recent Longitudinal Study found: ‘three years after graduation, those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who attended private schools are more likely to be in the ‘top jobs’….
‘This research shows that even if we compare students from the same institution type, taking the same subjects and with the same degree class, socioeconomic status and private schooling still affects an individual’s chance of securing a top job,’ the report concluded.
‘An individual who has a parent who is a manager and who attended a private school is around 7 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations. Male graduates from a managerial background who attended a private school are around 10 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations.
But academics do not know whether the advantage given to private school pupils is simply the ‘old boys’ network’ or whether they learn better social skills so appear more confident in job interviews.
‘Our results indicate a persistent advantage from having attended a private school. This raises questions about whether the advantage that private school graduates have is because they are better socially or academically prepared, have better networks or make different occupational choices.’
Ken Robinson (a Post Modern View)
This TED talk by Ken Robinson (An RSA animated video of a talk) – Offers several criticisms of the contemporary education system – you could loosly call this a post-modern/ late modern criticism of the role of modernist education, which also criticizes the Functionalist paradigm that school performs positive functions:
In short, Robinson argues that modern education lets most kids down in the following ways –
- It stifles their creativity by focusing too much on academic education and standardised testing – kids are taught that there is one answer and it’s at the back, rather than being taught to think divergently.
- It tests individual ability rather than your ability to work collaboratively in groups (which you would do in the real world).
- Lessons are dull – out of touch with children who are living in the most information rich age in history.
- It medicates thousands of kids with Ritalin – which Robinson sees as the wrong response to kids with ADHD – we should be stimulating them in divergent ways.
The Functionalist Perspective on Education – revision notes
This is an evaluative posts – click here for a reminder of the key skills in sociology and an explanation of different ways you can evaluate perspectives.