One possible social function that schools perform is that of social control. This post explores some of the ways school might perform this function and asks how effectively schools control pupils and parents today?
What is social control?
Social control refers to the formal and informal techniques that may be used to make the individual conform to social norms and values.
In sociology the focus is usually on how those with power and authority use institutions to control ‘ordinary’ people in society.
There are many institutions which can be said to perform social control, such as the law and the courts, the police, religion, the media and education.
The education system is of interest as an institution of social control because it reaches more people than most other institutions. Nearly all of us will attend school from a young age, and spend thousands of hours in school as children, while most of us will have no direct contact with the police, for example.
How might school act as an agent of social control?
- Parents are legally required to either send their children to a state or independently run school. Put another way, pupils are expected to attend school, and truant officers are employed to catch those who are not attending. Parents can be fined if their students have unauthorised absences.
- The > 90% of pupils who attend state schools will spend at least six hours a day in formal education. Many will spend more time in school because the school day has been getting longer in recent years, through the addition of both morning classes or breakfast clubs and after school clubs.
- Students who attend state schools will be taught the National Curriculum, having limited choice over what they study until they make their GCSE choices at 14.
- From 2013 young people are required to remain in some form of education or training until the age 18, raised from the previous ‘education leaving age’ of 16.
- Schools and colleges are required to teach pupils about ‘British Values’. This might be regarded as indoctrination by the State.
- Schools are responsible for Prevent – they have to report to the police anyone they believe to be involved with terrorist activities, and they have to work to prevent students being attracted to terrorist organisations.
- Schools engage in physical surveillance of pupils, most obviously through the increasing use of cameras, but also by using staff at school gates, in playgrounds and walking the corridors during lessons.
- Schools have clear codes of conduct and use isolation units and detentions to regulate deviant behaviour.
- Schools increasingly involve parents in monitoring students and keeping them on track, using ‘parenting contracts’ with deviant cases.
- Schools keep databases of student’s academic progress and report back to parents regularly. This means students know they are being watched, and most of them ‘self-regulate’ because of this.
- Schools may require certain students to work with learning support staff or attend further supported learning, which means such students will be under higher levels of surveillance.
- Schools may keep (confidential) records of student discussions about mental health and well-being and work with medical professionals to require students to attend further ‘support’ as necessary.
- Schools constantly remind students of the importance of qualifications for getting a good career, which may lead to some students self-regulating.
- Students are required to resit GCSE maths and English when in 16-19 education if they achieve less than a C first time round, meaning less choice in later life for those students.
Are schools effective agents of social control: exploring the evidence
It’s hard to argue against the view that schools use more control measures today than they did in the 1970s and 80s. However, just because schools try to control pupils more than they used to, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are effective in doing so.
Furthermore, there are some possible counter trends, such as the growth of home education and the increase in post-16 educational choices, that suggest that ‘formal education’ might actually be less constraining and controlling than it once was for increasing numbers of pupils.
Below I explore some of the different types of evidence to examine whether schools are effective agents of social control
Fines for Parents taking their children out of school during term time
Local councils can impose fines on parents if their children have an unauthorised absence from school during term time, even if just for one day. The fines start at £60 and if not paid parents can be prosecuted and face up to three months in jail.
These fines were tested in 2015 when John Platt refused to pay a fine handed out by the Isle of Wight LEA after he took his daughter on holiday to Disney World, Florida during term time. He argued that his daughter’s attendance had otherwise been excellent, and took his case the Supreme Court.
Platt lost the case, with the court siding with the Local Education Authority, declaring that he was guilty of breaching school rules and failing to secure his child’s regular attendance at school.
This court ruling seems to have made LEAs more likely to impose fines, and in 2017 -18 Local Authorities issued 260 000 penalty notices for unauthorized absences to parents, which was an increase of 110 000 on the previous year.
Extended School Days
Though not compulsory, there are some academies, such as the NET Academies Trust which run extended school days – starting school at 8.45 rather than at 9.00, running extra lessons after 15.00 for underachieving students, and offering a further enrichment programme later in the afternoon.
The rising of the ‘education’ leaving age in 2013
In 2013 the government raised the ‘formal education’ leaving age of pupils in England from 16 to 18 years.
Pupils can still leave school at 16, but only if they have a place at a further education college, or are going into work which has some kind of accredited training attached to it.
This means that rather than being able to transition to full adulthood and relative freedom at the age of 16, students are now subjected the control and surveillance associated with training for at least another two years.
If an individual is on a work-based training course, this regime of control may not be as severe as being in school, and in many ways this is probably going to be quite similar to just starting out on a new job anyway. But since 2013 this layer of ‘educational control’ has been formalised, and it means that MORE PEOPLE are now definitely going to be subjected to work based observations and assessments than ever before.
In 2012 Big Brother Watch released a report based on Freedom of Information requests that estimated there are over 100 000 CCTV cameras in schools.
There are more recent reports that camera footage taken in schools to show parents how their children have misbehaved, and to get students to reflect on and take responsibility for their ‘bad’ behaviour.
It’s interesting to note that if you do a google search for ‘schools’ and ‘cctv’ or ‘surveillance’ there isn’t much research being done, so the use of CCTV in schools seems to have become normalised as a form of social control.
Some schools even have security cameras in toilets, and this is raising some concern among parents.
The most recent evolution of physical surveillance is the use of body cams by teachers, which some schools are currently trialing. (Link from 2020).
The increasing use of isolation units
Isolation units are staffed rooms, often with partitioned booths, where disruptive students are sent to ‘cool off’, possibly for an hour or so, but sometimes for an entire day.
They are especially popular, according to at least one of the reports below, among multi-academy trusts.
According to a 2018 BBC report, at least 200 out of 1000 schools use isolation units, or booths. Some even have permanent units with their own toilet facilities so pupils can remain in them for an entire day if necessary.
According to this Guardian article (2020), schools are using isolation units to punish pupils for more and more trivial breaches of the rules. For example the article refers to one girl who was put in isolation for forgetting her planner, for the first time ever.
Some schools seem to be using isolation on a more regular basis to freeze some pupils out of the mainstream school environment. The article refers to one individual, Brendan, who spent much of his last term in isolation, and left schools with no GCSEs.
It’s likely that these units are growing in popularity since the government has cracked down on the use of exclusions, which means schools are more likely to try and deal with deviant students in-house, which explains the rise of isolation units.
isolation units – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46044394
According to Ofsted, ‘fundamental British values’ are:
- the rule of law
- individual liberty
- mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.
The British government has required schools to promote ‘British Values’ since 2014, when it first published its guidance on how schools might go about doing this.
Certain extracts from the guidance read like something out of the 1950s: schools are required to prepare pupils for modern life by ensuring their moral, spiritual and cultural development.
The primary aim of the British Values agenda seems to be about promoting democracy, and it is suggested that schools look for opportunities within the National Curriculum as well as extra-curricular activities to promote them.
This article in The Conversation presents one of the problems with teaching British Values is that the idea of what British Values should be taught in schools wasn’t discussed particularly widely by parliament, let alone the general public before schools were required to teach them to pupils.
The Prevent Duty
The Prevent Duty (in effect since 2015) requires that schools take due regard to ensure that pupils are not drawn into terrorism.
Specifically, the guidance recommends teaching British Values, as well as the possibility of monitoring students’ online activities, and it provides contacts if schools have a concern about particular students, among which it lists the local police force.
This seems to be some extremely strong evidence that schools are directly being used as agents of formal social control, working directly with the police to combat terrorism.
However, although the intention is to prevent extremism, the legislation may have had the opposite effect. This 2016 report by Rights Watch UK suggests that Prevent may have increased divisions in British society.
The report argues that divisions may have increased as a result of untrained teachers unnecessarily referring students on to anti-terrorism authorities because they have misinterpreted certain patterns of behaviour or actions as being suspicious, when in fact the students has no terrorist intentions at all.
The increasing use of technology to monitor students
In the United States some schools have moved to 24 hour monitoring of students’ online activities, at least those made within the school’s own system.
This article cites the example of one student talking about self-harm on a school messaging system, after school hours, this triggered an alert from the monitoring system, and a member of staff contacted the student’s parent immediately.
I know this is the United States, but the UK so often follows what the U.S. does, just a few years afterwards. This article from Wired Magazine highlights the fact that students are already under a historically unprecedented level of electronic surveillance here in the UK, and maybe this is just the start, with surveillance of personal communications set to get ever more intrusive.
Other forms of Surveillance in schools
I’ve only examined a limited range of some of the more obvious forms of evidence which suggests schools are increasingly acting as agents of social control for the British State.
In addition to all the above, schools have increased their level of ‘academic surveillance’ since the introduction of the 1988 Education Act, and students are now exposed to regular testings, reports, and reviews of their progress as just a normal part of school life.
This kind of academic-surveillance has just become normalised: most students expect it, and don’t even think about challenging it.
It is possibly this that is the most profound social control measure – millions of students knowing that their progress is going to be reviewed at least once every six weeks, probably more often, keeps them working, keeps them doing homework, keeps them chained to the system.
The same may be said of getting students to think about their future careers – where UCAS is concerned, students have to start thinking about what universities to go to and writing their personal statements a year in advance, taking up considerable time in their final year of formal education, AND (if they get a conditional offer) keeping them working.
So it is possibly the competitive nature of the system, the concern about failure and the constant surveillance of progress which are the main mechanisms whereby schools control pupils?
The system doesn’t control all students equally, and there are at least three recent counter-trends which suggest schools are NOT effective agents of social control: the increase in home education, the increase in exclusions and the increase in choice in 16-18 education.
The Number of Exclusions is Increasing
According to DFES data, both fixed term and permanent exclusions have been increasing since 2012/13
However, whether this counts as evidence against schools being effective agents of social control is debatable.
Personally I think it does suggest schools are not being effective, because exclusions suggest schools cannot control students within school boundaries, so students are offloaded, possibly to be under less surveillance once they have been excluded.
HOWEVER, you might interpret this increase as evidence of MORE control: it all depends what happens to the students afterwards!
The increase in Home Education
48,000 children were being home-educated in 2016-17, up from about 34,000 in 2014-15, according to this BBC article.
Students educated at home are more likely to get a choice in how they are educated, and are less likely to be subjected to many of the control measures suggested above.
However, we are talking about relatively small numbers of students here – 48, 000 children, compared to a few million in the education system as a whole!
Increasing post 16 education choices
Students may have to stay on in some form of education or training until they are 18, but it’s debatable whether many of those are really still under educational surveillance.
Once students hit 16 years of age, they can enter work based training, which can be just like an ordinary job, except with lower pay because they are ‘training’, so this may not be that much of a change from pre-2013 when they could have just left formal education altogether!
Conclusions: Are schools effective agents of social control?
Based on the evidence above, I’d say that they are certainly being used by the State to control certain pupils more, and that schools themselves are making increasing use of technology to control students through surveillance.
When it comes to the question of effectiveness – I’d say yes, they have become more effective – but this is primarily due to the more subtle forms of academic surveillance, which works day to day, and goes largely unquestioned.
However, there are a significant minority or students who are NOT controlled – both those who get excluded, and those who are home educated, and I’m sure if I dug further I’d find that we’re talking about the underclass being excluded and the educated middle classes who are being home educated.