Education: 3. The Purpose of Schools

The final part of the “Structure and Organisation of Education” trilogy (Part 1: Structure and Organisation and Part 2: Schools, Marketisation and Parentocracy are, as is the way of trilogies, also available) ends with a !Bang! (if by “bang” you mean “a slightly loud noise”) by looking at various forms of school organisation (from the formal curriulum to the informal curriculum, from streaming to cultural reproduction, from Here to Eternity etc.)

Although the obvious answer to any question about the purpose of schools is “education”, the meaning of education is neither self-evident nor unproblematic: the former because “education” can encompass a wide range of formal and informal types of learning – from explicit teaching about ox-bow lakes in geography to implicit teaching about gendered relationships in the classroom – and the latter because what counts as “education” is always socially constructed and socially-contested. It always reflects, Weber (1922) suggests, what any society considers “Worthy of being known”.

What constitutes education in any society, therefore – from how it is structured and organised to which ideas are actually taught in a classroom (or, increasingly, online) – is always the outcome of a power struggle between different interested parties: from business and media corporations through political parties to individual parents and teachers. It is, therefore, against this background of conflict and consensus that we need to outline and evaluate the purpose of schools.

One way to start to do this is through Merton’s (1957) distinction between manifest and latent functions:

  • Manifest functions relate to the things schools are expected to do; in this instance teaching children the knowledge and skills required by adult society. This idea is explored in terms of the nature and organisation of the formal curriculum.
  • Latent functions refer to things not officially recognised as being part of the school’s purpose and may also be the unintended consequences of the way schools are formally organised – an idea explored in terms of the hidden curriculum.
  • The formal curriculum

    Although schools have always had a formal curriculum, until the Education Reform Act (1998) there was no official statement of the subjects that had to be taught in all state-maintained schools. The 1944 Education Act, for example, simply specified a “broadly based curriculum” that took into account the “spiritual, mental and physical developments of the community”.

    The 1988 Act, reflecting a broadly New Right set of political ideas and prescriptions about the meaning and purpose of education, introduced a centrally-controlled, highly prescriptive, curriculum that not only identified the subjects to be taught in secondary schools but also the content of each subject and the amount of time to be spent each week on a range of “core” and “non-core” subjects

    The 1988 National Curriculum

    The National Curriculum, in this respect, set-out a clear idea about what a particular section of British (political) society considered worthy of being known (predominantly English, Maths and Science – more recently “Technology” has been added to the list) and its hierarchical status within the education system. STEM subjects (Science, Technology, English and Maths) sit squarely at the very top of the educational pile, with some Humanities slightly down the list and no place for social sciences like Psychology and Sociology.

    One of the interesting things about the formal curriculum in English schools is how little it has changed in terms of subjects taught over the past 100+ years (although the content would be considerably different in contemporary English schools). The Victorian classroom, for example, variously included teaching:

  • English Grammar and Literature
  • Geography
  • History
  • Mathematics
  • Military drills (PE)
  • Latin, French, German
  • Botany (Biology)
  • Religious Knowledge
  • Domestic Science / Needlework (girls)
  • While the subject-focus of the formal curriculum hasn’t arguably changed much over the past century there have been more-recent attempts to radically realign what is taught and how it should be taught:

    The Tomlinson Report (2004), for example, was commissioned by the Labour government as part of a major a review of the 14 – 19 curriculum and recommended, among other things, the reform of examinations such as GCSE and A-level into a Diploma modelled on the International Baccalaureate and built around three areas:

    1. Main learning that would take up most curriculum time would be spent on a combination of academic and vocational subjects could be mixed-and-matched by pupils.

    2. Core learning focused on ensuring pupils gained “a minimum standard in functional communication, mathematics and ICT”. It could also involve participation in “sports, arts, work experience and community service”.

    3. Common skills, knowledge and attributes focused on skills like problem solving, a knowledge of ethics and diversity and attributes like citizenship.

    Tomlinson’s recommendations were never implemented – which probably tells us something interesting about the nature of the political and economic forces in our society and how they shape the formal curriculum. The Labour government of the time had a large, popular, majority in Parliament yet was unable – or unwilling – to implement the changes recommended in a Report they had commissioned.

    A 14 – 19 Diploma was, however, introduced to sit alongside, rather than replace, GCSE and A-level qualifications. The main focus of Diplomas has been vocational, offering a combination of practical and theoretical experience in areas like engineering or hair and beauty studies.

    A more-recent (2010) development was the introduction of the “English Baccalaureate” (EBacc). Students “achieve” the EBacc when they gain 5 or more GCSEs grade A* – C in 5 subject areas:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Humanities (History or Geography)
  • Science
  • Language (modern or classical).
  • As should be apparent, the EBacc is another strong statement about the relative importance of different subjects and ideas within the formal education system.

    The EBacc is a performance indictor rather than a qualification; school performance is measured by the percentage of pupils who achieve the EBacc and this, in turn, focuses the formal curriculum on the subjects that qualify for EBacc status. One implication here is a narrowing of the curriculum:  schools concentrate on EBacc subjects to the exclusion of other subjects, such as the Arts, social sciences or Information Technology.

    While schools can still offer these subjects they are less likely to include them in the 14 – 16 curriculum for reasons of time, funding and the fact they are not measured by school performance indicators. This means that not only are pupil achievements in these areas not recorded as part of a school’s performance, time and resources spent teaching these subjects are time and resources taken away from teaching subjects, such as English, Maths and Science, that are vitally important for a school’s continued existence.

    These observations raise the question of the relationship between the formal curriculum and the range of performance indicators introduced by the 1988 Education Act and gradually expanded to include all primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. Based initially on GCSE / A-level results and, increasingly, Key Stage assessment test results, performance indicators have been extensively criticised for their bias in favour of schools with selective intakes (public and grammar schools, Comprehensives / Academies with predominantly high-achieving middle-class intakes) and against schools with high levels of SEN (Special Educational Needs) and Free School Meals (FSM) children. To counter-act this in-built disadvantage, the government now publishes “Value-Added” League Tables measuring progress (rather than actual level of achievement) made by a pupil between, for example, Key Stage 3 and 4.

    GCSE Grading: Old and New

    Gillborn and Youdell (2000), however, argue performance indicators create a “triage system”, a medical term that determines the priority given to different patients based on the seriousness of their condition. The education of those whose performance is on or around the “C” grade level at GCSE (approximately Grade 4 or 5 under the new “9 to 1” grade system first applied in 2017) get priority and increased resources because failure to get “borderline pupils” into the A – C category  (roughly grades 9 – 4 under the new system) can have wide-ranging consequences for a school – the ultimate sanction being closure. Those groups considered “safe” and “without hope” of reaching the required grades receive less teaching time and resources. In this respect, Gillborn and Youdell characterise “the A-C economy” as the main educational driving force in state schools.

    In terms of the manifest functions of schools, therefore, the teaching and learning of “socially necessary” (however we may actually define this idea) knowledge and skills is clearly an important purpose of schools. We have, however, also noted that a further purpose of schools is to “sift and grade” pupils (and, by extension, teachers and schools) in terms of their academic achievements, something that provides a link to a discussion of some of the more-latent functions of schools considered in terms of a “hidden curriculum”.

    The hidden curriculum

    A further dimension to understanding the purpose of schools is to explore the informal or hidden curriculum – what Jackson (1968) defined as a secondary socialisation process based on what children learn from the experience of attending school. Skelton (1997), for example, suggests it involves a “set of implicit messages relating to knowledge, values, norms of behaviour and attitudes that learners experience in and through educational processes”.

    The hidden curriculum, therefore, refers to the idea schools transmit certain value-laden messages to pupils that, Paechter (1999) suggests, have two dimensions:

  • Intended consequences are the things teachers “actively and consciously pursue as learning goals”. These include encouraging particular values, such as politeness, the importance of order and obedience to authority while discouraging others, from bullying and sexism, through questioning the role and authority of the teacher to a lack of effort or attendance.
  • Unintended consequences include the messages pupils receive through the teaching and learning process. This includes status messages, such as whether boys appear to be more valued than girls (or vice versa) and messages relating to beliefs about ability: whether teachers believe it is “natural”, the product of “hard work” or some combination of the two.
  • More generally, the messages transmitted within schools as part of a hidden curriculum fall into two broad categories:

    1. Socialisation messages relate to what is required from pupils if they are to succeed educationally. Some ideas refer explicitly to how pupils should behave, such as various classroom processes that involve order and control, such as attendance and punctuality. Others relate to the things pupils must demonstrate in order to “learn how to learn”: this involves things like learning conformity to both formal school rules and the informal rules, beliefs and attitudes perpetuated through the socialisation process. The latter, for example, may involve things like recognising the teacher’s legitimate authority and not questioning what is being taught or how and why it needs to be learnt. The socialising aspects of the hidden curriculum also mean children also learn ideas about:

  • Individualism: learning and achievement is largely an individual process that should not, ultimately, be shared.
  • Knowledge: to pass exams the pupil must to conform to what the teacher presents as valid knowledge, realised and tested through formal written examinations. Whitehead (2007), for example, argues “what counts as valid and legitimate educational knowledge is always subject to hidden power relationships in the classroom, in terms of what is to be taught, and society in terms of what is worthy of being taught“.
  • Competition: the objective is to demonstrate you are better than your peers through various types of testing. Assessment is also an integral part of the hidden curriculum because it suggests knowledge is only useful if it can be quantified. As we will see, assessment is a crucial aspect of various forms of teacher labellingandstereotyping that involve teachers communicating, consciously and subconsciously, positive or negative beliefs about the value of their pupils. Pupils frequently pick up on these ideas and, in the process, see themselves in terms of the labels given to them by their teachers.
  • 2. Status messages that relate to the ideas pupils develop about their “self-worth”. These include things like:

  • the type of school a child attends impacting on the individual’s self-image and sense of self-worth; in the UK, for example, a small band of private, fee-paying, schools have the highest social status. More generally, schools are given a status as “good” or “bad” in terms of their GCSE results and this “associated status” is transferred to every pupil who enters the school.
  • within schools practices like streaming (grouping by ability on a yearly basis), banding (pupils of the same age taught at different levels, such as Intermediate and Higher Maths) and setting (grouping by ability on a subject-by-subject basis) impact on pupil self and other perceptions in terms of membership of ”high” or “low” achieving academic groups.
  • subject choices in terms of the idea academic (higher) and vocational (lower) subjects have different statuses in the curriculum, school and society. The recent introduction of “vocational GCSE’s” in the UK for example, sends the message academic GCSE’s are not suited to the abilities of some, mainly working class, pupils. Hill and Cole (2001), in this respect, argue the hidden curriculum functions to exclude particular groups, especially working-class children, but also such groups as the mentally and physically disabled. Gillborn(1992) also argues the hidden curriculum impacts on ethnic, as well as gender and class identities, through both the content of the subject teaching – where subjects like History or Science emphasise the achievements of White males and marginalise those of other ethnicities and genders – and where more general ideas about democracy, racial equality and so forth frequently clash with the “learned experiences” of black pupils.
  • While the above relates to a range of general ideas about the nature and content of the hidden curriculum, we can briefly examine some of the issues we’ve just raised by looking more-specifically at the concept of labellingand how it is bound-up in a range of discriminatory processes within schools.


    A further dimension to the hidden curriculum, therefore, is the concept of positive and negative labelling; how teachers, for example, classify and stereotype students in ways that impact on pupil self-perceptions. Padfield (1997), for example, has explored how “informal reputations”, such as being labelled a “swot” or “saddo”, gained within the school influenced official definitions of pupils. Labelling theory, therefore, examines how school processes shape meanings, in terms of ideas like:

  • the purpose of education.
  • roles and relationships within schools.
  • pupil self-perceptions developed through processes like streaming, banding and setting.
  • Labelling processes, in this respect, have two distinctive features:

    Firstly, Brimi (2005) suggests they involve a concept of cultural capital: what students bring into the school from their home and family background has a significant impact on both their experience of education and how successfully or otherwise they can negotiate the various “barriers to success”, such as exams or negative labelling, placed in their path.

    Secondly, Nash (1972) suggests “success” or “failure”, in terms of examination passes, is not simply a matter of “where you come from” or “the size of your parents’ wallet”. There are more subtle processes at play in the classroom relating to how teachers and students manage their impressions of each other. If a student can employ sufficient cultural capital to conform to the teacher’s perception of a “good pupil” it’s possible for them to overcome particular disadvantages in their home background, something that explains the ability of some pupils from disadvantaged social backgrounds to succeed in the education system.

    We can illustrate these ideas by outlining a number of ways labelling processes operate within schools.


    This practice, once very common in the UK but increasingly discarded in favour of similar, but significantly different, processes or setting and banding, involves allocating children to different year groups or streams within the school on the basis of “academic ability”. These are ranked hierarchically and pupils are normally tested at the end of each academic year and re-assigned to the same or different streams. Whatever the educational justifications for streaming, if we consider it as part of the hidden curriculum the evidence suggests it not only has significant consequences for the individual pupil but can also perpetuate both educational inequalities and differential achievements.

    Hargreaves’s (1967) study of “Lumley School”, for example, noted boys were streamed on the basis of “academic ability”. After the first year at secondary school streams took-on a rigid character; it was almost impossible for a boy allocated to the bottom stream to move into the top stream at some later point. While Hargreaves found a close correlation between social class and streaming, with middle class children in the top, and working class children in the bottom streams, he also found the experience of streaming confirmed each child into a self-perception as either a “success” or a “failure”. The lack of movement between streams also encouraged pupil subcultures to develop that led not only to conflicts between teachers and pupils but also to “inter-stream”, pupil-to-pupil, conflicts. Hallam et al. (2001) also highlight how high and low stream pupils attracted different stigmatising labels, such as ‘thick’ / ‘dumb’ and ‘boffin’ / ‘clever clogs’

    Lacey’s “Hightown Grammar” (1970) study noted how streaming affected both behaviour and educational achievement; lower stream pupils, mainly drawn from working class backgrounds, came to adopt anti-academic attitudes and behaviour. One of the most surprising aspect of Lacey’s study is that this should have involved children who, at 11, were classified as being the top 15% – 20% of the most academically able pupils in Britain.

    Keddie (1971) found the academic label attached to a pupil – whether they were in the top or bottom stream, for example – followed them through their schooling and was a crucial influence on how such pupils were perceived by new teachers; behaviour and ability was interpreted in the light of the label pupils brought to the classroom rather than simply assessed anew.

    banding and setting

    Two common variations on streaming involve banding, where pupils are allocated to different “ability bands” when they enter secondary school on the basis of reports from teachers in their primary schools and setting: pupils are academically grouped on a subject-by-subject basis, such that the same pupil may be in the top set for physics, a middle set for biology and the lowest set for French.

    In-Class Setting:
    A different table for a different (ability) set.

    A more-recent variation of setting, however, involves the development of “in-class sets”. That is, a group of pupils are allocated different sets within the same classroom and consequently given different levels of work to complete.

    Banding is, in this respect, generally closer to the idea of streaming than to setting and, in some ways, can be used by a school to replicate most of the features of streaming.

    However, just to complicate matters, some schools operate a system of fair banding whereby they adjust their intake to reflect a range of academic abilities. A school may, for example, identify 5 ability ranges it wants to cover and pupils will be admitted in one of these bands (think of it as similar to a stratified form of sampling). Once an ability band is full, no more pupils are accepted into that band, a process that attempts to ensure that a school’s intake reflects as broad a range of abilities as possible. This is an attempt to ensure that “competing schools” in an area don’t have their intake skewed towards predominantly high or low-achieving intakes.

    Setting, on the other hand, avoids some of the more common social consequences of streaming, such as pupils tending not to develop strong subcultural relationships and groups because they are constantly mixing with different peers.

    Hallam et al. note it has both benefits, such as minimising disruptive behaviour and disadvantages: stigmatising lower set pupils as “academic failures” and the long-term association between lower sets and unemployment, higher sets and good exam grades. Keddie also noted how teachers gave “more creative work and privileges to higher set students while restricting lower sets to tedious, routine tasks”, while Power et al. (2003) argued setting created the belief, even among relatively successful grammar school pupils, that those in the lowest sets were failures compared to their higher-set peers. Lupton’s (2004) study confirmed this idea when she noted how one Head teacher abandoned banding “principally to counter problems of low self-esteem among pupils in the lower band”.

    While streaming, setting and banding are part of a social process that serves to heighten or diminish a child’s expectation of educational success or failure, this is not the whole story; associated with such practices are attitudes, perceptions and beliefs that teachers have about children that are transmitted, consciously and unconsciously, through classroom interaction. As Keddie argues, this creates a situation where those in the top streams, set or bands come to understand “the nature and boundaries of what is to count as knowledge. It would seem to be the failure of high-ability pupils to question what they are taught in schools that contributes in large measure to their educational achievement.”.

    Against this, a meta-analysis the available research in Britain and America by the Education Endowment Foundation (2018) concluded that both setting and streaming:

  • has a very small negative impact for low and mid-range attaining learners
  • has a very small positive impact for higher attaining pupils
  • mean pupils who experience it make slightly less progress than pupils taught in mixed attainment classes.
  • are not effective ways to raise attainment for most pupils.
  • impact on wider outcomes such as confidence. Some studies conclude that “grouping pupils on the basis of attainment may have longer term negative effects on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining pupils, for example, by discouraging the belief that their attainment can be improved through effort”.
  • frequently involves “misallocation of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at greater risk of misallocation to lower attaining groups, and the negative impact which can accompany this”.
  • self-fulfilling prophecies

    School processes such as streaming, setting and banding are a significant source of positive and negative labelling, which itself is an important part of the process of a pupil’s self-perception based on reference groups – the various people we use to check “how we’re doing” in whatever role we’re playing. Not everyone in our reference group is equally important, however:

  • significant others are people whose opinion is valued; we care about what they think of us and our behaviour.
  • insignificant others are people we don’t particularly care about and their opinions are generally ignored, rejected or downplayed.
  • Teachers are, arguably, an important part of a pupil’s reference group. Their opinions are always significant because they have the power to create and impose labels that relate directly to individual self-perceptions as “successful” or “unsuccessful” pupils. Teachers are not alone in this role. Fellow pupils are also part of the school reference group and may have a significant labelling impact on how the role of education is defined through pro-and anti-school subcultures. The educational significance of teacher labelling is partly expressed in terms of self-fulfilling prophecies – a prediction about something, such as “ability” that, by being made, causes it to occur:

  • Nash (1972) studied how beliefs about “good” and “bad” pupils were transmitted to pupils through teacher attitudes and behaviour. He concluded teacher expectations are a determining factor in pupil success or failure in the education system: “Certainly children of low social origin do poorly at school because they lack encouragement at home, because they use language in a different way from their teachers, because they have their own attitudes to learning and so on. But also because of the expectations their teachers have of them“. Teachers, in this respect. made conscious and subconscious “predictions” about the ability of their pupils that their behaviour towards them fulfilled: where they associated working class pupils with low levels of attainment they reinforced this cultural stereotype through their lowered expectations.
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) tested the effects of teacher labelling and expectations on pupil’s academic performance by telling teachers they could predict which children in a class would develop academically: the pupils they identified showed greater academic achievement than their classmates. However, they had simply identified “potential high achievers” randomly and the changes they observed were the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy; the teachers consciously and subconsciously communicated positive and negative beliefs about individual pupils, who picked-up on these ideas and eventually saw themselves in terms of the labels they were given.
  • The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy also applies to whole classes of students who may find themselves negatively labelled through practices such as streaming, setting, banding or processes such as class, gender and ethnic stereotyping: Willis and Ball (1981), for example, documented the effects of negative labelling on the educational achievement of working class pupils while both Wright (1992) and Troyna and Hatcher (1992) studied similar effects on ethnic minority children.

    In a specifically UK context, explanations for gender differences in achievement focused on labelling and stereotyping suggest girls increasingly experience positivelabelling, as high achievers who work hard and have least behavioural problems. Boys are increasingly negativelylabelled in terms of underachievement, laziness and behavioural problems. Jones and Myhill, for example, suggest teachers identify boys as “potential underachievers” and redefine and re-evaluate their role in terms of how to stimulate boys’ “natural” interests and abilities, frequently at the expense of underachievement among working class and minority ethnic girls. Ideas about identity construction have also been added to the mix.

    Francis (2000) argues changes within the school and wider society have altered the way girls construct femininity, they no longer see it mainly in terms of “husband and home”, whereas concepts of masculinity have remained largely unchanged – significant ideas in the context of economic changes that have seen a rapid decline in male-dominated manufacturing and a rise in female-friendly service industries. Burn (2001) argues current preoccupations in the UK with initiatives relating to boys’ achievement, such as  male role models, afterschool learning clubs, boy-friendly curricula and single-sex classroom groups, sends messages about achievement to both males and females: that boys have “a problem” and the achievement of girls is both devalued and is part of the problem.

    While labelling is generally directed at individuals and groups, whole schools may also find themselves positively or negatively labelled. In the UK, for example, many of the most expensive private schools, such as Eton or Harrow, generally attract positive labels while Comprehensive schools, especially those in poor inner-city areas, often attract negative labelling. Gewirtz (1998) argues the type of school attended can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of success or failure even before a pupil enters the classroom. Top performing schools, whether private or state maintained, create a climate of expectation that pushes pupils into higher levels of achievement.


    A major methodological problem with labelling explanations is that they are both a cause and a consequence of differential achievement. For thousands of individual teachers to negatively label working class boys or black ethnic minorities as “underachievers” there must already be a general perception of underachievement attached to these groups; for teacher labelling to be a cause of differential achievement, therefore, differential achievement has to be a cause of teacher labelling. In this respect, although labelling processes are well-documented, it is methodologically unclear how they actually cause differential achievement.

    Concepts like labelling and self-fulfilling prophecies are also criticised for being too deterministic as explanations for underachievement; they suggest general processes that once set in motion are almost impossible to reverse. These concepts are also infinitely adaptable as explanations:

  • in the past female underachievement in the UK was the result of negative labelling.
  • in the present female overachievement results from positive labelling.
  • While Interactionist approaches reintroduce the notion of human agency into the role of education by looking at relationships within the school, it both over-determines the importance of labelling and underplays the influence of wider social processes on things like achievement. Although micro school processes, such as teacher labelling, tell us a great deal about how and why individual pupils “succeed” or “fail”, wider social processes relating to areas like economic relationships that create the situation in which concepts like success and failure are constructed in the first place are marginalised.

    As Bernstein argues “How a society selects, classifies, distributes, transmits and evaluates educational knowledge” is part of a much broader social process that influences how education is experienced. While Interactionists see power as a significant variable, it is seen in the context of individuals; teachers who have the power to impose labels and make them stick to pupils, pupils who have the power to reject labels and the like. There is little sense of power being located in wider economic, political and ideological relationships that Marxists, for example, argue determine the role of education systems

    The gendered curriculum

    One way both the hidden curriculum and labelling processes are expressed is through the subject choices made by individual pupils. In the UK, for example, the introduction of a National Curriculum (1990) made selected subjects, such as English, Maths and Science, compulsory up to GCSE. This meant fewer subject options were available and consequently fewer gendered subject choices were made by pupils. Although subject choice does exist in secondary schooling, the main evidence for curriculum gendering in the UK now comes post-16, when males and females make significantly different subject choices when given the opportunity.

    Differences in subject choice at A-level also translate into differences at undergraduate level. Self and Zealey, for example, note that “a higher proportion of women than men studied subjects allied to medicine [such as nursing], while a greater proportion of men studied business and administrative services. Higher proportions of men also studied engineering and technology subjects and computer sciences”.


    We can outline a selection of different explanations for the gendered curriculum:

    Eichler (1980) highlighted how different socialisation experiences and social expectations about males and females help to construct different gender identities and adult role expectations. In the past, for example, the education system contributed to the way women saw their primary adult role in the private sphere of the family, as mother and housewife, for example. Although female horizons have widened over the past 25 years, feminists argue traditional assumptions about masculinity and femininity continue to influence both family and work relationships in areas like:

  • Textbooks and gender stereotyping: Males appear more frequently and are more likely to be shown in active (“doing and demonstrating”), rather than passive, roles. Best (1992), for example, demonstrated how pre-school texts designed to develop reading skills were populated by sexist assumptions and stereotypes. More-recently (2018) an “in-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books” by The Observer newspaper found that the world represented “remained riddled with casual sexism”: it was one seemingly dominated by men, acting-out stereotypically masculine roles with women relegated to subordinate and submissive roles, where they appeared at all (women were completely missing from 20% of the books studied).
  • Subject hierarchies: Both teachers and pupils quickly appreciate some subjects are more important than others, both within the formal curriculum, such as English, Maths and Science and outside the curriculum – subjects not considered worthy of inclusion (such as social sciences or subjects that were heavily practical) and hence knowing. The argument here is that gender hierarchies reflect these subject hierarchies, with males opting for higher status subjects in far greater numbers.
  • Norman et al. (1988) argue teacher expectations, especially in early-years schooling,emphasise female roles related to the mother / careraxis and while this may no-longer automatically translate into women seeing their primary role in termsof caring for their family, work rolescontinue to be framed around the idea of differentmale and female capabilities, both mental and physical. This translates, in turn, into gendered subject choices. Bamford (1989), for example, noted how certain subjects attracted gendered labels – sciences like physics and chemistry were seen as masculine, while social sciences were seen as feminine. These gendered perceptions help to explain lower levels of female participation and general achievement in science subjects.  

    Abbot and Wallace (1996) also suggest concepts of masculinity and femininity are influenced by factors such as academic hierarchies, how schools are vertically stratified, with men normally occupying the higher status positions, Mahony (1985) argued staffing structures reflected male importance in the workplace; the highest status teaching jobs were and remain occupied by men; as Mirza et al (2005) note “Women make up 53% of the secondary teaching population, but are still under-represented in secondary school senior management positions, particularly headships”; around 30% of secondary heads are women. In the nursery / primary sector although only 16% of teachers are male, 34% of head teachers are male.

    cultural reproduction

    While Interactionists have generally focused their attention on individual outcomes of the hidden curriculum, as expressed, for example, through different forms of labelling within schools, Marxists have tended to focus on the more-collective aspects of both the formal and informal curricula, particularly as these relate to the idea of cultural reproduction: the question of how, in a broadly non-selective education system the sons and daughters of those higher-up the class structure (particularly those of the upper middle classes in the State-maintained system) tend to be the most academically successful and, partly as a consequence, move into higher paying, higher status employment after leaving education.

    For Marxists, the formal curriculum is an integral aspect of cultural reproduction because it affords opportunities to separate children of different classes into different employment streams at an early age. In this way cultural reproduction is disguised as a consequence of, on the one hand, the choices parents and their children make and, on the other, their differing levels of “natural” ability or aptitude. We can see this most clearly in UK where, historically, the 11+ IQ test was widely seen to effectively sort middle-class children into higher status grammar schools with an academic programme leading into professional and higher managerial roles and working-class children into secondary modern schools with a vocational education leading into various forms of manual work.

    More recently this division is mirrored in academic and vocational streams within the same school, such as Comprehensives that do not select their intake by ability in the case of the UK. For Althusser (1971) schools are an ideological state apparatus (ISA) that involve social learning. Teachers “transform pupil consciousness” by encouraging them to accept not just “the hard realities of life” – that the workplace is unequal – but most importantly their likely future social positions. Vocational education within schools has, in this respect, a couple of advantages for ruling elites:

  • it eliminates working class children as competitors for higher level occupations.
  • it gives the appearance of being chosen by the working class themselves, either through self-selection, such as leaving school at the earliest opportunity, or as a result of a failure to reach a required level of academic achievement.
  • Bates and Riseborough (1993), for example, argue a significant feature of contemporary forms of vocational education in the UK (sometimes called the new vocationalism) is that most (white) middle class pupils follow the academic route into professional employment whereas (white and black) working class pupils are encouraged along the vocational route to lower paid / lower status work.

    Marxists have been generally critical of both vocational education, because it effectively forces working class children to specialise in particular areas of low-level work at an early age, and work-based training schemes. Finn (1988), for example, argued youth training schemes involved cheap labour employers could use for a short time and then discard without penalty; bonded “trainees” who left a job risked losing State benefits and were effectively tied to a particular employer, whatever the conditions of the job – a particular, punitive, feature of more contemporary forms of work-based training.

    Many trainees were either placed on “work creation schemes” devised and funded by government or in work offering no prospect of further employment once the “training period” was over and the government subsidy ended. Finn argues training was minimal to non-existent in many types of work placement and, where training was given it did not cover the skills required for work in a high technology, service-based, economy. For Bates and Riseborough the New Vocationalism is more about social control, taking potentially troublesome unemployed youth “off-the-streets” and subjecting them to workplace discipline, lowering wages for all young people by subsidising some employers and lowering unemployment figures. Similar criticisms have been levelled at recent forms of government-sponsored work-based training schemes:

  • Work experience programmes are designed as “voluntary” schemes for those who take unpaid work for up to 6 months; while they receive an allowance during their placement, if they leave the job benefits are stopped.
  • Mandatory schemes, on the other hand, are compulsory; the longer-term unemployed must take unpaid work and a failure to complete the programme involves a loss of State benefits.
  • As Davies (2012) reports, such schemes have come under heavy criticism as “modern slave labour” that involve little or no training.


    Criticism of Marxist approaches has focused around the idea of an exact correspondence (pace Bowles and Gintis (1975)) between education and the economy. Young (1981), for example, has called this approach “left functionalism”; the idea education functions to “meet the needs of a ruling class”. Dissenting Neo-Marxists such as Poulantzas (1978) have also argued schools are relatively autonomous institutions that have a degree of freedom to interpret the curriculum in ways that make it difficult to see how a precise correspondence between education and work can develop.

    A different level of criticism, although related to ideas about the relative status of academic and vocational forms of education, focuses, following Bourdieu, on notions of cultural capital and the ability of individual actors within schools to make choices about their education. This involves the idea that the choices made by working and middle class pupils reflect their different levels of cultural capital, as expressed through different interests and experiences. Schools, in this view, should be responsive to these choices by making different types of academic and vocational education available.

    Heath (1997) argues Marxist approaches tend to reject all forms of vocational education as simply reflecting class-based cultural reproduction. She notes that some forms have helped women in areas ofschooling and eventually work that weretraditionally male preserves by demandingequal opportunities.

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