Just Sociology

Understanding Education: Functions Policies and Inequality

Education is considered the fundamental factor in shaping the class structure, the economy, and ultimately the society. Therefore, understanding how education functions and how it impacts society is critical.

This article outlines various theories and perspectives that provide insights into the education system’s functions, policies, and how it affects differential educational achievement among social groups. The article examines functionalism, Marxism, the New Right, postmodernism, selection, marketisation, privatisation, equality of opportunity, globalisation, gender, social class differences, and ethnicity.

The Education System, Economy, and Class Structure

Perspectives on Education and its Functions

Functionalism is a sociological perspective that views education as a crucial institution that creates social solidarity by imparting shared values, beliefs, and knowledge. Education achieves its functions by preparing individuals for the workforce and developing their social and cognitive skills.

In contrast, Marxism posits that education reproduces and justifies the existing class structure by transmitting the dominant ideology and legitimising the status quo. The schooling system is used to maintain the ruling class’s dominant position and suppress the working class’s aspirations for collective action.

The New Right’s perspective endorses education’s role in preparing individuals for the workforce, and it supports marketisation, privatisation, and competition in the education system to promote economic efficiency. Postmodernism challenges the universal conception of education, suggesting that it is subjective and dependent on the individual’s cultural experience.

Educational Policies and their Impact

Selection policies based on academic ability, such as grammar schools, select a small number of students and consequently reproduce social inequalities. Marketisation policies introduce competition between schools, giving parents more choices, and educational institutions more autonomy.

This policy encourages schools to act similarly to private companies, putting them under pressure to market themselves to attract students or face closure. In contrast, privatisation policies, such as charter schools, entail transferring school management to private companies.

Privatisation fuels inequalities by increasing educational opportunities among the rich while leaving behind the poor. The policy of equality of opportunity is designed to tackle social inequalities by ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their social background.

However, its effectiveness has been challenged, given the persistence of social inequality. The rise of globalisation has brought about the internationalisation of education and created a global market for education.

Students are encouraged to study abroad and increase the knowledge exchange between different societies.

Differential Educational Achievement of Social Groups

Gender and Differential Educational Achievement

Gender differences in educational achievement have been widely researched, revealing that girls often outperform boys in examinations. However, gender specificity in subject choice is apparent, with girls disproportionately taking liberal subjects, such as languages and humanities, while boys are overrepresented in science and technology subjects.

This gender identity is the result of teachers’ attitudes towards particular subjects, which may reinforce gender stereotypes. Out of school factors, such as parental expectations and gender socialisation, are also significant.

Research suggests that boys are more likely than girls to receive negative feedback from teachers, hindering their educational attainment, while girls benefit from female role models and parental sanction given to academic positive performance. Additionally, subcultures greatly influence educational attainment.

Girls often have higher aspirations and positive attitudes towards academic achievement promoted by the feminisation of educational values, while boys pursue anti-school subcultures that often hamper their educational achievement.

Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement

Research shows that social class is a significant predictor of an individual’s educational attainment. Lower-class students face material deprivation, such as a lack of financial resources, limited access to learning resources, and inadequate housing conditions.

Cultural deprivation, which includes the lack of proper socialisation and exposure to cultural experiences, also impedes their educational attainment. The concept of cultural capital refers to non-financial resources, such as language, behaviour, and knowledge of the dominant culture, that can be used to attain educational success.

In-school processes such as banding and streaming, implemented disproportionately on lower-class students, amplify social class differences in educational achievement. The ethnocentric curriculum, which reflects the dominant culture and values and represses other cultures, reinforces social class differences in educational achievement.

Ethnicity and Differential Educational Achievement

Ethnicity is an essential determinant of educational achievement. Material factors, such as restricted access to resources, are significant factors affecting students who belong to ethnic minorities.

For example, recent migrants often face language barriers, discrimination, and limited access to learning resources. Cultural factors, such as different family structures and cultures, can create a significant influence on an individual’s educational attainment.

In-school processes such as banding and streaming, segregation, and institutional racism, hinder achievement and reinforce social exclusion. Institutional racism in the education system, whereby ethnic minority students receive unequal treatment or prejudice, affects their learning outcomes.


The education system’s role in shaping social, economic, and class structures is critical, making it necessary to understand its functions, policies, and their impact. The theories and perspectives provided in this article, including functionalism, Marxism, the New Right, and postmodernism, offer a diverse range of insights.

Similarly, the policies outlined, including selection, marketisation, privatisation, equality of opportunity, and globalisation, affect educational outcomes. Gender, social class, and ethnicity are vital determinants of differential educational achievement, and in-school processes and out-of-school factors significantly affect educational achievement, lending insight into how to tackle inequality.The relationships and processes of schools have a profound impact on educational outcomes.

This article aims to expand the discussion of education by exploring the key relationships and processes within schools. The article looks closely at teacher/pupil relationships, pupil subcultures and identity, and the organization of teaching and learning.

Additionally, this article examines the significance of educational policies and their impact on education outcomes. The education policies that this article examines include the Tripartite System, Comprehensivisation, New Right Education Act, Academies, Expansion of Higher Education, Sure Start, Education Maintenance Allowance, Forced Academisation, Free Schools, Funding Cuts, Pupil Premium, State Grammars, Compensatory Education, and Vocationalism.

Relationships and Processes within Schools

Teacher/Pupil Relationships and Identities

The hidden curriculum within schools refers to the implicit messages conveyed to students beyond the official curriculum. A student’s socialization within the hidden curriculum shapes their perspective on society and their place within it.

Teachers play a crucial role in shaping the hidden curriculum, and consequently, the identity of the student. In this view, teachers’ prejudices and stereotypes towards specific students, such as those of lower socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic minorities, or students with learning disabilities, result in a biased projection of what the ideal student should look like.

This results in the labelling of students as naughty or disruptive, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy or a hyper-feminine identity for some male students, which ultimately reduces their academic potential within the system. Teachers sometimes use verbal abuse to maintain control, and students, in turn, can become rebellious and disruptive.

Pupil Subcultures and Identity

Schools provide students with opportunities to form social groups and subcultures, which can impact students’ academic success. Counter-school cultures, which negatively condone school work, hinder achievement, while aspirational cultures promote academic success.

Masculinities and femininities are also highly influential in shaping pupil subcultures and identities. Boys tend to form oppositional counter-school cultures that encourage them to be disruptive, while girls tend to opt for a docile and passive femininity, which may limit their ability to speak up effectively in the classroom.

The formation of peer groups often perpetuates the inequalities in the education system, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be found in oppositional subcultures.

Organization of Teaching and Learning

The organization of teaching and learning in schools has a tremendous impact on the learning outcomes of students. Banding, streaming, and setting are practices used to organise student academic performance.

Students who are placed in lower sets often receive an inferior education due to an ethnocentric curriculum that focuses exclusively on White British history and culture. This lack of inclusivity leaves students vulnerable to cultural exclusion and marginalisation.

Furthermore, unequal access to classroom knowledge, such as textbooks and teaching resources, creates educational triage, whereby some students receive lower-quality education than others. This systemic inequality is compounded by funding cuts and lack of resources, and those students coming from poorer backgrounds are most affected.

Significance of Educational Policies

Key Education Policies

Education policies are enacted to change the education system, which often has significant and lasting effects. The tripartite system, which divided students into three academic paths at eleven years old, is viewed as one of the policies that produced the greatest anomalies in educational achievement.

The move towards comprehensive schools sought to reduce the impact of the tripartite system and prevent selection by academic ability. The New Right Education Act (1988) focused on the privatisation of education and introduced marketisation, competition, and choice.

Academies, which developed out of the New Right, provide schools with more autonomy in management and organisation while expanding the supply of private sector providers. The expansion of higher education policy aimed to provide greater access to university for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sure Start, an early years intervention, provided support for children and their families. Education Maintenance Allowance targeted financially disadvantaged students, offering them financial support to stay in education.

Forced academisation or the conversion of failing schools into academies sought to turn around schools’ attainment. Free schools, much like academies, offer schools more autonomy in management, organisation and are run by individual groups.

Funding cuts that limit school resources have had severe downstream consequences for student achievement. The Pupil Premium, which provides additional funding for schools with disadvantaged students, was introduced to alleviate the effect of social deprivation on learning.

The recent renewed interest in state grammar schools has sparked debates on educational opportunity.

Policy Impact Analysis

The impact of education policies can influence a broad spectrum of areas in education. Policies seeking to achieve equality of opportunity can help to reduce educational inequalities through targeted funding that supports disadvantaged students.

Schools selection policies such as the tripartite system or selection based on academic ability are ideas that reinforce social stratification and inequality by replicating social class divisions. The privatisation of education, as seen in the New Right, can create disparities in educational opportunities, favouring the wealthy, while excluding the disadvantaged.

The expansion of higher education policies, such as Sure Start and Education Maintenance Allowance, have targeted those from poorer backgrounds and have shown some level of success for those students. An ethnocentric curriculum reinforces social divisions by privileging dominant social and cultural values at the expense of marginalised students’ histories and cultures.


The relationship and processes within a school greatly impact educational outcomes. Teachers play an essential role in shaping the hidden curriculum, which ultimately shapes student identity.

Pupil subcultures and identity, organisation of teaching and learning also impact educational outcomes. Education policy is significant in determining educational outcomes, affecting students positively or negatively.

This article has provided a comprehensive overview of education policies and their impact, highlighting areas that require further attention. In conclusion, this article has explored essential aspects of education, including the education system’s functions, policies, differential educational achievement of social groups, relationships and processes within schools, and the significance of education policies.

Focusing on these aspects helps to understand the critical role of education in shaping the economy, society, and class structure. It has been shown that education inequality persists, and progress is needed to address the issues outlined in this article.

Implementing effective policies and ensuring that students receive an inclusive education experience will help promote equality of opportunity and achievement for all students, regardless of their socio-economic background, gender, or ethnicity.


Q: What is the hidden curriculum in school?

A: The hidden curriculum refers to implicit messages conveyed to students beyond the official curriculum, shaping their perspective on society, and their place in it. Q: Why is addressing differential educational achievement crucial?

A: Addressing differential educational achievement is crucial because it may perpetuate social and economic inequalities. Q: What policies have been impactful in addressing education inequality?

A: Policies such as the Pupil Premium, Sure Start, and Education Maintenance Allowance have been impactful in addressing education inequality. Q: How do the policies affect educational outcomes differently?

A: Some policies, such as those seeking to achieve equality of opportunity, positively impact educational outcomes. Other policies, such as selection policies, may have a negative impact on educational outcomes.

Q: Why is the organization of teaching and learning in schools important? A: The organization of teaching and learning in schools is important because it impacts the learning outcomes of students.

Q: How do pupil subcultures affect educational outcomes? A: Pupil subcultures impact educational outcomes by creating social groups that can promote or hinder academic success.

Q: What impact do teacher/pupil relationships have on education outcomes? A: Teacher/pupil relationships impact education outcomes by shaping the hidden curriculum and ultimately affecting student identity.

Q: How can an ethnocentric curriculum create inequalities? A: An ethnocentric curriculum can create inequalities by privileging dominant social and cultural values at the expense of marginalised students’ histories and cultures.

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