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UK Education System Case Study


Education in the United Kingdom has been a battleground of educational and socio-political ideologies. This is particularly true over the last thirty years, as different political parties taking power each made it their first priority for change. The following essay uses a range of theoretical approaches to the sociology of education to unpick the relationship between an educational system’s structure and its function.

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The case of the UK system will be examined.Functionalist and structuralist approaches to the sociology of education are particularly useful in the case study.

Theoretical Approaches to Education

Many theoretical approaches are derived from Marx, who frequently discussed education in terms of the class struggle. He pointed out that education served the interests of the ruling class, and acts as a way of maintaining the status quo in society. This perspective was later elaborated on by Weber, who looked at the way knowledge can be used to help particular social groups maintain their position in society, and Durkheim, who looked at the ways social institutions work in society, particularly the ways in which they help maintain social order.More recently, while the Marxist legacy is still influential, with the view that educational institutions are sites of class conflict, other views are also discernable. Critical Theory, which started in Germany’s Frankfurt school, suggested that technology and bureaucracy are dominant social forces, and heavily influence education systems. By uncovering this, which was seen as a form of capitalism, it was hoped that individuals could be freed from false belief sets. Other contemporary perspectives are heavily influenced by Weber, looking at struggles for ownership of education in terms of the predominant cultures of the groups involved in the struggle. Another perspective is interactionism, which shifts focus from the macro level to the individual. It looks at the ways in which the social world is formed by the meanings attributed to actions and events by human participants. Theories of this nature can provide insight into how educationalists and those in the system actually experience this (Saha 2008), but are less useful at explaining how function links to the structures which determine education.

Other important theoretical perspectives on education are provided by structuralism and functionalism. Structuralism is another Marxist perspective on education, but together with Marx, the linguistics of de Saussure is an influence. Structuralist perspectives were first applied to anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss who theorised that any given culture was essentially a system of symbols. Following this, structuralist perspectives were applied to many differing fields from literature to sociology and education. Its core perspective, as stated by Bulle (2010) was to ‘explain meaning of human activity through its symbolic function’ (Bulle: 2010: 97). That is, for education, a structuralist approach would look at the way that the institutions surrounding teaching generate the meanings found within that institution, and how objects within the institution take on a symbolic function rooted in a network of wider relationships. Structuralism has also been described as being a ‘synchronic’ study of the rules of ‘society’ (Ball: 2010: 1321).

Functionalist perspectives are also rooted in Marxism, but with a Durkheimian perspective. The main thrust behind functionalism in sociology is the idea that all institutions are part of a social system that is present by common consensus and that all aspects of the ‘system’ are integrated with each other. For perspectives on education, this might mean looking at the way decisions are made and influence is carried out, and the playing out of power relations which impact upon teaching and learning practice. Weber (cited Dzebik 2010; Beare and Slaughter (1993)) described educational systems as predictable and rational with “systematic and rarely changed” routines, and on the large scale, to determine the activities taken by thousands of people at a time. Weber also describes educational systems as a machine. While this seems particularly applicable to the time period in which Weber was writing, a perspective rooted in class struggle and the workings of power continue to be influential.

The UK Education System, its Structure, Function and Context

Within the UK, the education system needs to take the concept of social class into perspective. According to West and Pennell (2005), the determination of social class can be a challenge in itself because it can be ‘used interchangeably with’ the idea of ‘socioeconomic status’ (Topping and Maloney: 2005: 78) although they are not always synonymous with each other. Nowadays, with a society that is perceived as being more fluid, the concept of social class can be harder to pin down.There is also a link between class and poverty levels, although other factors such as ethnicity, special educational needs and gender are seen to be connected with social class too. There is currently a focus upon the impact of poverty on education, with figures of children on free school meals used as a measurement of poverty, and this in turn suggests extra educational needs.The OECD Economic Survey explains:

FSM (free school meals) is used as a marker of….extra needs and enters school funding formula and is the criteria for the new pupil premium (OECD Economic Surveys 2011: 86 )

Thus, there seems to be some recognition that class, to the extent that lower class status can be associated with poverty, plays a role in education, and steps are being taken to address the inequalities poverty brings about.

Above was outlined the nature of functionalism and structuralism, both with common roots in Marxism, and both with useful insights into educational sociology today. Both of these schools of thought can contribute to the debate concerning the nature of education within British society, and illustrate the impact that poverty and social inequality can have on education and society in general. Both functionalism and structuralism will be used to explain and explore how poverty affects educational results.

According to a recent OECD (2011) report, incomes and educational outcomes are unevenly distributed in the UK, particularly compared to many other OECD countries. It has been suggested repeatedly (OECD 2011; Feinstein et al 2006) that household poverty can have a serious negative impact on children’s achievements as well as upon their behaviour.Once a certain threshold of income has been passed, lifting the child out of poverty, “additional increments to income have less substantial effects” (Feinstein et al 2006: 108).Therefore, and as emphasised by Feinstein et al (2006), parental income, which equates to some extent with social class, can have a direct bearing upon the education of the child. This seems to affirm a Marxist analysis of education. In addition, it seems arguable that in areas where resources are directed to the improvement of the educational system, the benefits are felt by both parent and child (Feinstein et al, 2006).This would seem to support a structural analysis of education, as changes to the system as a whole make positive changes to the meaning individuals find within the system.

Functionalism and structuralism can explain this inequality in more depth. Durkheim, writing at a time of mass-industrialisation when the factory system was held in high esteem as a business model, likened the then-new phenomenon of mass schooling to a factory, and saw it as a direct result of the industrial system (Dzebik 2010).Durkheim, who widely influenced functionalism also believed that any change in the educational system was a direct and causal consequence of changes in wider society as a whole (Morrow and Torres 1995). This is confirmed by the insight, noted above, that intervention in the education of children living below the poverty line can improve the lives of those children and their families.

Many would argue that schools have hardly changed in nature since Durkheim’s time, and hence that his insights are still relevant today. As Ball suggests (2010: 1312), the school “is … a social site for the presentation of partial knowledge – ideology”. Knowledge is presented as a way of socialising children to fit the needs of society as a whole, and particularly a post-capitalist, global society (Ball 2010). In other words, within the UK, education is designed not to develop well-rounded individuals, but to create material to ensure the continuing functioning of the corporate world.As Wexler (2010) suggests, there is little interest in transformation through learning but rather upon reproducing the most efficient units for the working world. In both cases, the individual needs of the child are subsumed into the needs of society and its institutions.This lack of interest in transformation, it has been argued, helps solidify the existing status quo, and re-confirm the boundaries which separate the social classes (Ball 2010). In addition, it has been shown that parental attitudes towards education directly affect children’s aspirations and own attitude to school. Parents who affirm the benefits of education can improve the levels of their children’s educational achievements as well as reducing the rates at which they drop out of education (Feinstein et al 2010). Parental attitudes towards education can also be adverse, which is often a function of their previous experience and disaffection with the educational and societal system.Family history can be seen as a background from which disaffection can arise.However, parental attitudes are a function of wider social issues, thus suggesting a structuralist perspective is useful. Poverty and hence inequality can dictate how education is viewed in a family. Family attitudes towards education can also be intergenerational, in that they can be passed from one generation to the next (Parsons 2010). However, it could be said that this issue of intergenerational educational disaffection, as an example of how social stratification can directly and indirectly affect the educational aspirations of the individual, can support both a structuralist and a functionalist view of education.

Other factors, in addition to poverty (although often found alongside them) can influence attitudes towards education. For example, being a child of a single-parent family, or with unemployed parents, can influence levels of achievement (Parsons 2010). The complexity of the relationship between poverty, family background, employment, crime and educational achievement suggest that the structural approach to education, which stresses the inter-connectedness of purportedly separate variables, is appropriate. The relatively recent concept of social exclusion attempts to address the nature of this relationship but there is also a recognition that “school exclusions are part of wider social exclusions related to inequality and poverty” (Parsons 2010: 37).

Under a functionalist perspective, education exists to produce adults who can fit seamlessly into a post-capitalist society and contribute to global capitalism. However, a fairly recent phenomenon raises questions about whether the system is in fact producing these adults. The concept of ‘NEET’s (young adults not in employment, education or training) has arisen since the late 1990’s to describe a distinct social group who “are not just economically inactive but also seemingly completely inactive, occupying an unconstructive (and potentially threatening) position on the social topography” (Attewell and Newman 2010: 185). However, on closer examination the existence of this category supports, rather than works against, a functionalist analysis. For the group to be defined and vilified, there first needs to be an idea of what it means not to be a ‘NEET’, that is, to be a functioning and useful member of society. As this non-NEET group is by far the larger, this suggests that society as a whole has created a situation in which non-NEETs are the desired product of the educational system, and NEETs a problem to be addressed (Attewell and Newman 2010). The NEET category is a by-product of defining young adults in terms of the role they can play in a money-generating world. It is certainly the case that NEETs have been vilified, with a “common assumption in the UK, particular in policy arenas, that while NEETs come from diverse backgrounds, they share “low levels of aspiration and little motivation”’ (Popham 2003: 8).The phenomenon therefore seems to support a functionalist analysis of education.

More generally, the issue of pupil dissatisfaction and drop-out rates also supports a structuralist and functionalist perspective. Attitudes towards education, it has been mentioned, originate in the family, and are in turn linked to wider social and structural issues of socioeconomic background, parental education level, area in which the family lives, and ethnicity (Attewell and Newman 2010). Cultural identities nowadays are increasingly complex, and wealth and opportunity distributed increasingly unequally. Robinson (2010) also links an awareness of inequality between social sectors to dissatisfaction and lack of commitment amongst school pupils.Pupil attitudes are thus causally linked to wider social structures, and to being part of a machine designed to create the best ‘end product’ for a capitalist system.


The above analysis has looked at the case of the education system in the UK, in the context of theoretical perspectives on educational sociology. Functionalism and structuralism, both rooted in Marxist views of society, have been shown to be useful in explaining some of the most pertinent facets of education today.


Attewell, P, and Newman, KS, (2010), ‘Growing Gaps: Educational Equality Throughout the World’, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Bulle, N (2008), ‘Sociology of Education’, Peter Lang AG, Germany

Feinstein,L, Duckworth, K, and Sabates, R (2008), ‘Education and the Family: Success Across the Generations, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon

Lynch, K (2008), ‘Research and Theory on Equality and Education’, IN: Hallinan, MT, (2008), ‘Handbook of Sociology and Education, Springer Science, University of Notre Dame, IN

Morrow, RA and Torres, CA, (1995), ‘Social Theory and Education: A Critique of theories of social and cultural reproduction’, State University of New York Press, Albany NY

OECD (2011), ‘OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011, OECD Publishing http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eco_surveys-gbr-2011-en Accessed on 30th November 2011

Parsons, C, (2002), ‘Education, Exclusion and Citizenship, Routledge, London

Robinson, K, (2011), ‘Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Capstone Publishing (A Wiley Company), Chichester, UK

Saha, L J (2008) ‘Sociology of Education’, in T L Good (ed.) ‘21st Century Education: a reference handbook, SAGE, USA

Wexler, P (2000), ‘Sociology of School Knowledge’, IN: Ball, SJ (ed.), (2000), ‘Sociology of Education’, RoutledgeFalmer, London

Zsebik, P, ‘Educational Leadership for the 21st Century: Building a Capacity for change’, iUniverse, Bloomington IN, USA

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