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Education Main Theories

From Feminism to Marxism via Functionalism, what are the main theories around education? Discover more with our dedicated analysis.


Functionalist perspectives view society as a social system with each part– or social institution – playing some part in maintaining that social system. Social order is underpinned by a set of shared values, passed on from generation to generation through the process of socialisation. When functionalists examine any social institution they begin by asking: what are its functions for society?

In the case of education functionalists identify three main functions of education: socialisation, the teaching of the skills required in the economy and role allocation.


    Marxism takes a conflict view of society. Marxists see capitalist societies like modern Britain divided according to social class. Those rich business owners who control the means of production (the bourgeoisie or ruling class) also control the rest of society, while the remainder of the population – the proletariat – work for them. The two main classes are inevitably in conflict so the ruling class uses its power over key agencies of socialisation such as education to convince the mass of the population that capitalism is the fairest form of society.

    In a sense Marxist views are similar to the functionalist position except that rather than benefit the whole of society, education is working only in the interests of the ruling capitalist class.

    Althusser argues that education has replaced religion as the main method of ideological control. Students are taught that the capitalist system is fair and that success or failure is the result of individual differences in ability, effort and talent, not an inevitable product of an exploitative system.

    Bowles and Gintis focus on what they call a correspondence between the worlds of education and work. Schools have a hidden curriculum – a set of norms and values that are transmitted through education and this hidden curriculum prepares students for their future life as exploited workers. Like most workplaces, schools expect students to conform and to do as they are told. They have little or no control over what they learn in the same way as workers have no control over their work. Schools reward punctuality and obedience and discourage criticism and innovation – just like most workplaces. Finally, any satisfaction students do get is based on external reward – exam grades, just as workers satisfaction is derived from their pay packet.

    Willis’s research, also influenced by Marxism, found that even when working-class students rebel against the norms and values of the school, this resistance also prepares them for low-level employment where workers often ‘have a laugh’ in order to survive the drudgery of low-skill work.

    Marxist approaches have been criticised for over-emphasising conflict and exploitation. After all, many working-class pupils do succeed and great efforts are made to provide more opportunities for disadvantaged groups.


    Feminism is a broad term used to describe a range of views that all focus on improving the position of women in society. Sometimes feminism is divided into three periods: first-wave feminism, focusing on achieving equal rights for women in the first half of the 20th century; second-wave feminism, from the 1960s through to the 1980s, questioning the role of women in sexuality, culture and the family; and third-wave feminism, focusing on the diversity of both feminist views and of women’s experiences from the 1990s.

    From the point of view of first-wave feminists, the curriculum for boys and for girls in the early 20th century was very different. The education of girls emphasised, in addition to basic literacy and numeracy, domestic skills such as cookery and needlework. The 1944 Education Act introduced the tripartite system where children were tested at 11 (the 11+ exam) and allocated places at secondary modern, technical and grammar schools. A place in a grammar school virtually guaranteed upward social mobility for many working-class children. However, because girls did rather better than boys in the 11+ exam, the number of girls going to grammar schools was kept artificially low – equal opportunities were not a reality for many girls.

    In the 1960s and 1970s girls’ achievement lagged behind that of boys. Second-wave feminists pointed to a range of areas where gender inequality occurred in education. They studied the use of sexist language and images in textbooks, the underrepresentation of women in the curriculum and teachers’ gender stereotyping. During the 1980s awareness of these issues grew in schools and great efforts were made to improve opportunities for girls. Teacher training emphasised the avoidance of gender stereotyping, textbooks presented positive images of females and, arguably, the introduction of coursework favoured girls.

    Through the 1990s and 2000s the achievement of girls gradually caught up and then overtook boys’. Third-wave feminists moved away from a focus on achievement and instead examined the relationships between gender, ethnicity and class and the experiences of girls in different localities and types of school. They also continued to study subject choice which remained highly stereotypical.


    Interactionism focuses on understanding the meanings people give to their own and to other’s actions. Because of this, interactionists focus on processes within the classroom rather than society as a whole, often using ethnographic, qualitative methods to collect the data to create and back up their theories.

    A major contribution of interactionism to the sociology of education is its analysis of setting and streaming and their effects of teacher labelling. For example, Ball showed how setting classes resulted in many working-class pupils being placed in lower sets. Teachers have lower expectations of these low set classes and may focus on discipline rather than learning, thus leading to lower levels of achievement – in effect, the setting becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Another effect of setting and streaming can be the formation of pupil subcultures. Working-class students in lower sets may reject their label as ‘failures’ and turn against the values of the school, forming anti-school subcultures.

    More recent research influenced by interactionism focuses on gender and ethnicity. Wright’s classroom research found that teachers have a tendency to ignore Asian pupils and expect Black boys to misbehave, this leads to resentment from many pupil from minority ethnic backgrounds.

    Interactionism has been influential in its focus on classroom processes but is sometimes limited by a failure to pay attention to wider social structures.

    New right

    This is a conservative position generally believing that the market should play a greater role in education and that the state is inefficient when running education and other public services. Any policy that advocates less state intervention in education can be attractive for governments who watch the spending on education rocket upwards.

    New Right supporters argue that there should be more competition in education. Different types of schools should be available and parental choice should decide which expand and are successful, and which fail and are forced to close. These views have been very influential since the 1970s. Popular schools have been allowed to expand and businesses and other organisations set up academies and free schools, outside of local authority influence.

    New Right commentators see underachievement as the responsibility of individuals and families who may fail to provide adequate socialisation and to be part of what Murray refers to as an ‘underclass’ – a group of lazy, irresponsible, workshy welfare claimants.

    Evidence from sociologists such as Ball has demonstrated how policies aimed at making schools compete have resulted in increased class inequality as the middle classes are skilled at ‘playing the system’. Furthermore, there is very little actual evidence to support the idea of an ‘underclass’.