Education: 4. Role and Function: 1. Functionalism and Neo (New Right) Functionalism


Functionalist arguments about the role of education focus on the various ways education links to other social institutions, such as the family and the workplace, as part of an overall network of connected institutions. The education system is, in this respect, conceptualised as a bridge between these institutions in two broad ways:

1. On an institutional level, modern social systems involve different types of work and must develop ways of allocating and managing human resources to ensure they are used efficiently and effectively (such as not producing too many unskilled workers if there is no demand for their services).

2. On an individual level education functions as an agency of secondary socialisation to, as Parsons (1959) argues, “broaden the individual’s experience” of the social world and prepare children for adult role relationships in the workplace and wider society.


For the education system to function efficiently on both levels it must be meritocratic. Rewards, such as well-paid, high status, work, are earned through individual abilities and efforts, such as working hard in school to gain qualifications. Merit-based systems are also competitive: different levels of reward are given for different levels of achievement. Competition must be based on equality of opportunity: if some are disadvantaged, through something like sexual or racial discrimination, society cannot be sure “the best people” occupy the most important, prestigious and well-rewarded adult roles.

A meritocratic system involves, by definition, different levels of reward for different levels of effort and achievement – which means a major role of education is social differentiation; children have to be “made different”, on the basis of their individual merits, if education is to meet the requirements of a differentiated economy (one with a variety of different types of work, each requiring different levels of skills and knowledge). A meritocratic education system always, therefore, involves inequalities of outcome: children must leave the education system with different types and levels of qualifications appropriate to their efforts and achievements. As Parsons (1959) argues:

It is fair to give differential rewards for different levels of achievement, so long as there has been fair access to opportunity and fair that these rewards lead on to higher-order opportunities for the successful”.

Education systems are, in this respect, viewed as functionally necessary for both the individual – as a means of finding their place in wider society – and “society in general” because education performs a vital and necessary differentiation function in advanced industrial societies

The development of mass education is, therefore, explained in terms of functional differentiation. That is, the idea institutions develop to perform particular specialised functions, such as “work” and “education”. If, for whatever reason, the needs of one institution are not being adequately met, tensions develop within the system that threaten its stability and ability to function – the development of industrial forms of work, for example, required a newly literate and numerate workforce and without these skills the economy could neither function nor develop. Where other institutions, such as the family, cannot meet this new requirement system stability is threatened and equilibrium can only be restored in one of two ways:

  • an existing institution, such as the family or religion, evolvesto perform the required function. This involves differentiation that occurs within individual institutions; different roles need to be developed if the institution is to perform its new function.
  • a new institution, such as formal education, arises to ‘fulfil the need’.
  • While the former is always a possibility, the scale of economic change as societies industrialise overwhelms the ability of existing institutions to cope with the new changes and demands, hence, at some point in their development all societies will necessarily develop a specialised institution (education) as a means of restoring system stability.

    The concept of functional differentiation is particularly important because it suggests how functionalists see the broad relationship between economic and educational (or cultural) institutions; the latter develops and adapts to reflect and support the former. One important dimension to this relationship is that differentiation within the workplace is reflected by differentiation within the education system. A general process across all modern education systems is, for example, some kind of division of pupils along academic and vocational lines – a distinction that’s been variously justified by reference to ideas like:

  • natural differences in intelligence and aptitude.
  • Individuals choosing different educational routes: some favour more-practical and some favour more-academic routes.
  • the particular needs of the economy in the sense, structurally, of a need for people to leave education with skills that will fit them to the available jobs.
  • In Britain, for example, the 1944 Education Act that established free, universal, education, explicitly addressed education’s relationship with the workplace through a distinction between:

  • Grammar schools designed for academic pupils who were destined to move-on to University and professional employment.
  • Secondary Modern schools designed for vocational pupils who were destined to follow a practical or technical route into the workforce.
  • This type of functional division is reflected in secondary education systems worldwide:

  • India has both academic and vocational (school and profession-based) routes through secondary education.
  • Pakistan has similarly developed academic and technical routes.
  • Mauritius organises secondary education in a slightly different way but has also developed a distinction between academic routes into the workplace and a form of prevocational education for around 5% of the school population.
  • The separation of academic and vocational educational routes, therefore, reflects the idea of functional differentiation and specialisation in terms of two basic forms of work:

  • professional careers requiring higher levels of abstract knowledge and lower levels of practical expertise.
  • non-professionalwork requiring higher levels of practical expertise and lower levels of abstract knowledge.
  • While in Britain, at least, the rather clunky physical segregation of “academic” and “vocational” pupils into separate schools largely – but not totally – disappeared with the development of Comprehensive education in the mid-1970s, the functional requirement to competitively “sift and sort” pupils of different aptitudes and abilities into different spheres arguably continues with various in-school practices such as streaming, setting and banding and external testing / examinations at 7, 11, 14 and 16 (GCSE).

    While the specific means of “sifting and sorting pupils” may have changed since Davis and Moore (1945) argued that the education system existed to ensure that “those who are most able and talented intellectually” are allocated work roles that offer the highest rewards in terms of income, power and status, the broad sentiment remains true 75 years later. For traditional Functionalism the most functionally important economic roles must be filled by the most able, capable and competent members of society. The relationship between educational systems and the workplace, therefore, is one where “Education is the proving ground for ability and hence the selective agency for placing people in different statuses according to their abilities”.

    From the above we can note that, for traditional Functionalists two key aspects of the role of education are its socialisation and coordination functions:

    secondary socialisation

    In contemporary societies the function of schools as important agencies of secondary socialisation is one that is increasingly overlooked, particularly in relation to the notion of on-line learning (something brought into sharp relief by the 2020 global pandemic and the widespread closure of schools) where “education” is increasingly reduced to “teaching and learning” socially-approved “knowledge”. Traditional Functionalism has, however, continually stressed the significance of education as a secondary socialising institution which, Parsons (1959) involves the “emancipation of the child from primary attachment to the family”.

    Education systems, in other words, bridge the gap between family (childhood) and workplace (adulthood) attachments and orientations and the secondary socialising function of schools has a number of dimensions: one of the most important is the teaching and learning of instrumental relationships based on what people do for us in return for the things that we do for them. Most adult relationships take this form, as opposed to the affective – close and personal – relationships of primary socialisation. In school, instrumental relationships with teachers are different to affective relationships with friends and they mirror the general way we’re expected to relate to people in wider adult society.

    All socialisation involves some form of social control and two types are significant in the context of education:

    Firstly, learning to recognise the “invisible normative boundaries” of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

    Secondly, learning self-control – what Durkheim (1893) called the “denial of selfish individualism” – in order to cooperate with others. In this respect an important dimension of self-control involves deferred gratification – we can’t always have what we want when we want it (the opposite of immediate gratification).

    In educational terms, successful students learn to tolerate things they dislike, such as boring lessons, the authority of teachers and restrictions on their autonomy (freedom), in exchange for the expectation of passing exams and gaining access to high-pay, high-status occupations.

    From this perspective, learning instrumental relationships and submitting to social controls are integral to the transmission of cultural values. Through interaction with others in schools children internalise (adopt as part of their personality) wider cultural values – things like the history of their society and values like equality of opportunity, individual competition and respect for legitimate authority. This process is, of course, closely related to social solidarity – the idea we have to establish things “in common” with others if we are to live and work together. Schools, for example, develop mechanisms (uniforms, age-related classes, a “school ethos”…) that help promote a common “group identity”, to integrate individuals into the norms and values that ultimately underpin and support wider notions of social solidarity throughout a society.

    the co-ordination of human resources

    This function relates to how education systems link to wider society and involves ideas like role allocation: selecting children for their future adult roles, especially those relating to work. In contemporary societies, where some work roles require higher or different levels of skill and knowledge than others, individuals have to be differentiated or “made different” and one way schools do this is through testing and examinations. These must be objective tests, that everyone has an equal opportunity to take and pass, because adult roles have to be achieved by merit rather than ascribed (given on the basis of something like family background).This follows, Davis and Moore (1945) argue, because role allocation is a mechanism through which those who are intellectually most able and talented achieve work roles that offer the highest rewards in terms of income, power and status. As they argue:

    Education is the proving ground for ability and hence the selective agency for placing people in different statuses according to their abilities”.

    More-generally, this approach to understanding the role and function of education systems sees society as a social systemconsisting of different institutions (family, work, education and so forth), functionally interconnected in two ways:

    1. Each institution performs certain essential (or core) functions, such as providing the means of survival (work) or secondary socialisation (education).

    2. To perform these functions, each institution needscertain things from other institutions. In contemporary societies where the complexity of the workplace requires a certain level of knowledge and skill, work needs the education system to provide individuals who are not only secondary socialised but also socially differentiated. Schools perform this function by accrediting certain levels of knowledge and skill through qualifications.

    The relationship between education and work, therefore, is one of co-dependency: the workplace needs the education system to perform its allotted roles if it is to function successfully. It is a relationship established theoretically by the observation mass education systems only develop in modern industrial societies where there is a need for an educated workforce.


    Tumin (1953) questions the idea that we can objectively measure the ‘functional importance’ of different adult roles – the idea Hedge Fund managers, for example, have higher status and pay than road sweepers because their role is functionally more important for society. Tumin argues this is only something we can establish subjectively and simply represent ideological justifications for the Functionalist analysis of education and its relationship to the economy.

    Functionalist arguments are, in this respect, based on a tautological argument, one that contains its own proof: something like accountancy or Hedge Fund management has greater functional significance because it requires high level academic qualifications. An occupation’s demand for high academic qualifications are, in turn, “proof” this occupation is functionally more important to the economy.

    This, if you think about for a moment, is like saying a high paid occupation is functionally more important than a low-paid occupation because it is highly paid – but higher rates of pay for some occupations may be the result of many different factors, some of which relate to the ability of rich and powerful actors to protect and enhance their own particular interests at the expense of those who are not powerful enough to do something similar.

    A second line of criticism focuses on the assumption modern education systems “sift and sort” pupils into different types of education and qualifications in a meritocratic way; that is, on the basis of their individual merits, whether these involve higher levels of intelligence, a willingness to work hard, make personal sacrifices to pursue an education or whatever. In this respect the distinction between academic and vocational education as “functionally relevant” to the needs of the workplace is based on the idea individuals have differing abilities and aptitudes that make them best-suited to particular educational routes. The role of education, therefore, is to identify different types of pupil and allocate them to different types of education accordingly.

    This argument has been criticised by both Interactionists, who focus on school processes to show education is not meritocratic, and Marxists who argue the “meritocracy myth” simply obscures underlying processes of class reproduction. To paraphrase Willis (1977), working class kids get working class jobs not because of their abilities and attributes but because middle-class parents know how to work the education system in order to ensure their offspring get the middle-class jobs.

    It also interesting to note that neo-functionalists such as Luhmann argue traditional functionalism is out-dated in its understanding of how late / postmodern social systems operate. We can no-longer apply ideas that may have been relevant to the relationship between education and work 50 – 100 years ago to contemporary social systems.

    While Functionalism justifies educational inequalities of outcome on meritocratic principles based on equality of opportunity, Marxists (from Althusser to Bourdieu in their different ways) argue that education systems are neither meritocratic nor do they confer equal opportunities: they contend, for example, working class pupils are systematically disadvantaged in the education system through, as we’ve previously observed, the operation of the hidden curriculum.

    Meritocratic systems should involve what Turner (1960) calls contest mobility – fair competition gives “elite status to those who earn it” through their individual merits. Marxists such as Bowles and Gintis (1976) or Bourdieu argue the reality is one of sponsored mobility; upper and middle class children enjoy a range of cultural advantages, such as the ability to buy their education, that gives them unfair educational advantages. Their progress from school to high-paid, high status, employment is effectively sponsored by their parents’ class background.

    neo (new right) functionalism

    Neo-functionalist or new right perspectives, while acknowledging the basic relationship between the economy and education outlined by writers like Davis and Moore, argue the kind of society and economy they describe no-longer exists. Over the past 40 years, for example, increasingly rapid social and economic changes have occurred as the result of globalisation and this transition from a modern industrial society characteristic of the middle-late 20th century to a late / postmodern post-industrial society has necessarily changed the way we understand the relationship between schools and the workplace.

    Bell (1973), for example, argues post-industrial societies developed first in the heavily industrialised societies of the USA and Western Europe and would, eventually, spread across the world. The UK, for example, has seen a steady decline throughout the 20th century in the economic significance of:

  • agriculture, which now accounts for about 3% of all employment.
  • manufacturing, now around 20% of all employment.
  • There has been a steady rise in general service industries and, more recently, a rapid rise in computer-based, service technologies. In post-industrial society, therefore, services and knowledge are the dominant productive industries and these are characterised by their flexibility and speed of change – something that has brought into question, among many other things, the “academic / vocational” distinction in modern education systems. The argument here is this type of division is too inflexible to adequately meet the needs of a globalised economy. Luhmann (1997), while adopting a similar systems approach, criticises traditional functionalism as being too ‘mechanical’ in its theorising of the relationship between education and the economy.

    He questions, for example, the idea an economy simply exists – that it has unity and coherence as a system – and people are simply allotted places within it depending on criteria like educational qualifications. Where Luhmann sees social systems as interconnected networks, questions of inclusion or exclusion from an ever-changing system of social and economic relationships are the key to understanding education systems; they must be as flexible as the workplace if they are to function coherently. In Britain, for example these ideas are reflected in recent changes to different types of academic and vocational qualifications, with various attempts to:

  • break-down rigid distinctions between “academic” and “vocational” subjects through the development of new qualifications and routes to competence.
  • move away from a curriculum wholly-focused on subject knowledge towards one based on functional knowledge and skills, such as the ability to work with others and solve problems rather than simply “remember names and dates”.
  • blur the distinction between different types of (academic) knowledge and (practical) skills. The practical skills of postmodern economies are the kinds of knowledge skills necessary to cope with increasing levels of computerisation, for example.
  • The argument here, therefore, is that economic behaviour in the 21st century is very different to 50 – let alone 150 – years ago. Various globalising processes have resulted in the long-term decline in manufacturing and rise of the financial and service sectors that have changed both the nature of economic production and, as a consequence, the nature of education systems.

    In this context, while traditional forms of Functionalist thinking take a broadly structural or systems approach to understanding the role and function of education, New Right approaches represent a contemporary form of neo-functionalism that combines traditional Functionalist structuralist concepts, such as role allocation, with an individualism focused around consumers exercising choices about their children’s education – an approach that reflects a sometimes uneasy relationship in general Functionalist approaches between society and the individual.

    In terms of society, for example, schools should be privately owned rather than State controlled since governments are viewed as bureaucracies unable to adjust quickly and easily to change – unlike private companies whose ability to respond to market changes is essential if they are to prosper. From a general New Right perspective, therefore, the role of government and the state is to create the conditions under which businesses can successfully operate in the educational sphere.

    The theoretical underpinning of this approach is the argument private companies are consumer captured organisations. That is, if they are to survive in a competitive marketplace they must respond to the demands of consumers, continually innovating and improving their service to attract and retain customers. They have, in this respect, an economic incentive to be efficient, cost-effective and responsive to their customers in a way that governments do not. Where government is a monopoly supplier of education parents have little or no choice about their children’s education. Schools effectively choose which children they will take and they have little or no incentive to improve the education they offer because there would be no negative sanctions – such as being closed down – for failure.

    In terms of individuals, therefore, Pateman (1991) notes New Right approaches see consumer choice as limited by producer capture:

    Teachers (the ‘producers’) have set their own agendas for schools when it should be parents (the ‘consumers’) who set agendas for teachers. The New Right then argues for breaking up schooling monopolies and for enfranchizing the consumer”.

    The role of government, therefore, is to guarantee consumer choice in various ways:

  • by encouraging different types of school.
  • allowing businesses to build, own and run schools (as both charitable and profit-making enterprises)
  • encouraging fee-paying, private, schools that contribute to the diversity of educational provision
  • the enhancement of parental choice.
  • For parents to exercise informed choice government must set certain standards for education. In recent years in the UK this meant the introduction of a national curriculum, routine and systematic testing to ensure schools are performing their role and identifying schools “failing their customers”. Performance indicators, based around exam passes or value-added calculations, which show the “best” and “worst” performing schools are also designed, from this general perspective, to enhance and empower consumer choice by providing “objective measures of school performance”.

    The role of education in this new and evolving form of society, therefore, is to reflect its economic needs by providing well-socialised, motivated, individuals with the right qualifications for their future economic roles. This requires rigorous and objective selection processes, such as the 11+, to ensure pupils are placed in the right type of school and on the right type of course for their “individual needs”.

    The purpose of education from this perspective is to teach appropriate and required skills and knowledge, with a focus on “traditional” curriculum subjects such as English, Maths and Science, plus subjects like History that confer a sense of cultural tradition. Schools must also socialise children into values such as competition and individual achievement seen as essential for producing a well-disciplined future workforce.

    five dimensions

    Following Boyd (1991), New Right approaches can be characterised in terms of five main dimensions relating to their perception of the role of education and training in contemporary societies:

  • Disestablishment: The school system should be decoupled from State control and private businesses should be encouraged to own and run schools, just as private companies run supermarkets. The government doesn’t, for example, tell Tesco how to organise and run its shops.
  • Deregulation: Within broad limits private owners should be free to offer the kind of educational facilities and curriculum choices they believe parents want. Schools should be decoupled from Local Authority / government control.
  • Decentralisation: Control over decision-making within a school should be in the hands of those best-placed – governors and Head teachers – to make decisions in the interests of their clients (parents and their children) rather than those who are remote from the specific needs of schools, such as national and local politicians. Power is most efficiently exercised by school leaders who know and understand particular local conditions and circumstances and can respond quickly to economic and demographic change.
  • Diminution: Once each of the above ideas are operating the State has a reduced role to play in education and hence national education spending should fall (to be replaced by a variety of local initiatives (such as private, fee-paying, education, educational vouchers, local forms of taxation and so forth). This idea dovetails with the idea of “consumer choice” in education and general New Right thinking about the size and role of the State: if education takes a smaller part of the national tax budget people pay less tax and are free to spend that money on the education of their choice.
  • De-emphasis: With each of the above in place the power of government is diminished (or de-emphasised) and the power to make educational decisions is focused at the local level of individual schools.
  • three characteristics

    While these three dimensions suggest an overall view of education as a system, Boyd argues New Right approaches stress three characteristics pertinent to individual schools:

  • Character: Schools have an important role to play in ensuring children have the “right moral attitudes” and orientations for their future adult roles. Part of this process involves instilling respect for legitimate authority and the development of an efficient and well-motivated workforce. This idea has seen recent expression in an increased focus on child discipline – particularly in the newer Academies and Free Schools – as the means for establishing a strong groundwork for learning.
  • Core Content: The emphasis here is the establishment of a curriculum designed more-or-less exclusively to meet the needs of the workplace, with the main objective for schools being to adequately prepare children for their future adult working lives by offering a mix of qualifications – both academic and vocational – tailored to the individual needs of different pupils. In the past this has meant championing Grammar schools, while the current preference is for different types of academic / vocational qualifications (such as “ordinary” GCSEs and “vocational” GCSEs) within the same school. For the majority of students, the curriculum emphasis is on training, with the objective being to ensure schools produce students with the skills, knowledge, attitudes and orientations businesses need.
  • Choice of school: Parents should be free to choose their child’s school from a wide range of suppliers. The basic model is economic; schools that offer “good value” will thrive and those offering poor value will fold or be taken over.
  • evaluation

    Over the past 30 or so years, under successive Conservative, Labour and Coalition governments many of the views associated with New Right approaches have found their way onto the educational agenda – from curriculum and testing standards through school diversity to the increased involvement of businesses – predominantly in the form of Charitable Trusts – in the owning and running of schools. New Right approaches have, however, been criticised in a range of ways.

    Firstly, for their idealised view of private corporations as invariably being dynamic, innovative and wholly-responsive to consumer needs and demands.

    In particular, schools are encouraged to cherry-pick those students likely to perform well and neglect those, such as pupils with special educational needs, who are not.

    Secondly, consumer choice is only really available to those who have the money, resources and power to make informed choices. Where schools are allowed to select their pupils – through interviews and tests – it is invariably middle-class parents, those with sufficient cultural and social capital to successfully play the selection game, who benefit at the expense of working class parents and children who lack access to such forms of capital.

    In addition, access to economic capital also distorts the educational marketplace. Those with loads of spare cash can invest in their children by buying them a higher status private education. For middle-class parents, entry into the highest achieving state schools, whether academically selective or non-selective can be achieved by being able to live within the catchment areas for the intake of such schools. Buying a house in a location where entry into a “good” (i.e. high achieving) school is a way of gaming the system in their favour.

    Thirdly, there is little or no compelling evidence that schools run by private companies or charitable trusts are any more – or less – successful than those run by local education authorities.

    Finally, the assumption “diversity equals choice” is questionable. New Right approaches confuse social selection – schools actually choosing parents – with consumer choice (parents choosing schools), an example being private education. Only those with substantial economic resources can think about exercising their right to choose private education. In the State sector, Shepherd and Rogers’ (2012) analysis of primary and secondary Christian faith schools shows they take a lower proportion of working-class children than their catchment area would suggest they should. as they argue “England’s faith state schools are on average failing to mirror their local communities by shunning the poorest pupils in their area”.

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