Evaluate the Functionalist View of the Role of Education in Society (30) #LONG VERSION

An A-level sociology essay written for the AQA’s 7192 (1) specification, exam paper 1. This is the long, ‘overkill’ version of the essay, written using the PEAC system (Point – Explain – Analyse – Criticise)

NB – At time of posting, it’s half an essay, more to follow!

Introduction

Functionalism is a somewhat dated structural theory popular in 19th century France (Durkheim) and mid-20th century America (Parsons). Functionalist theorists adopted a ‘top-down’ approach to analysing the role which institutions, such as schools play in relation to other institutions, such as work, and generally believe that schools form an important part of a society’s structure. Functionalism is also a consensus theory: functionalists generally emphasise the positive functions which schools perform for individuals and society, arguing that schools tend to promote social harmony and social order, which they see as a good thing.

Below I will analyse and evaluate four specific ‘functions’ or roles which schools perform according to Functionalist theory, ultimately arguing that it obscures more than it enlightens our understanding of the role of education in society.

POINT 1: According to Emile Durkheim (1890s), the founder of modern Functionalism, the first role of education was to create a sense of social solidarity which in turn promoted value consensus.

EXPLANATION: Social Solidarity is where the individual members of society feel themselves to be a part of a single ‘body’ or community and work together towards shared goals. According to Durkhiem schools achieved social solidarity through children learning subjects such as history and English which gave them a shared sense of national identity, which in turn promoted value consensus, or agreement on shared values at the societal level.

Analysis: Durkheim thought schools were one of the few institutions which could promote solidarity at a national level – he may have a point. It is difficult to imagine any other institution which governments could use to socialise individuals in to a sense of national identity.

Evaluation: To evaluate this point, there do seem to be examples of where schools attempt to promote a sense of social solidarity. Writing in the 1950s, Talcott Parsons pointed to how, in American schools, children pledge allegiance to the flag; while today British schools and colleges are obliged to promote ‘British Values’ (woohoo!)

However, it is debatable whether schools are successful in instilling a genuine sense of social solidarity into most, let alone all students. A minority of students are excluded from schools, and around 5% are persistent absentees – if students are not in mainstream education, then schools cannot promote a sense of belonging; while for those students who are at school, many are there ‘in body, but not necessarily in spirit. Finally there is the fact there is such a huge diversity of schools (faith schools, private schools, home education) that surely education is too fragmented and divided for it to promote true solidarity at the national level – to the extent that postmodernists suggested there is no such thing as a unified culture anymore.

POINT 2: A second function of education, again according to Durkhiem, is that schools teach individuals the specialist skills for work, which is crucial in a complex, modern industrial economy. (Schools thus have an important economic function).

Durkhiem argued that school was an efficient way of teaching individuals these diverse skills while at the same time teaching them to co-operate with each-other – schools thus instilled a sense of organic solidarity, or solidarity based on difference and interdependency, with school being one of the only institutions which could do both of these functions simultaneously within the context of a national economy.

The idea that schools have an economic function certainly seems to be true – basic literacy and numeracy are certainly important for any job today, and ever since the New Right, Vocational education has expanded, right up to the present day in the form of Modern Apprenticeships, and today. There is also a relationship between government expenditure on education and economic growth – more developed countries tend to have stronger economies.

However, it is debatable whether schools prepare children adequately for work – for example, there is a shortage of STEM graduates, and many doctors come to Britain from abroad, so maybe the education system today focuses on the wrong subjects, not the subjects the economy actually needs to grow effectively? There is also a Postmodern critique from Ken Robinson that suggests that ‘schools kill creativity’ – a system obsessed with standardised testing hardly prepares people to go into the creative industries or become entrepreneurs, both of which are growth areas in the current UK economy.

More to follow…!

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