Functions of Education

The hidden curriculum

The concept of the 'hidden' curriculum is very ambiguous. There is no unquestionably correct definition so it De Bono describes such words as 'porridge' words - an imprecise notion that can be stirred around to generate further ideas. However, most sociologists use the term to refer to the various characteristics of schooling that are unquestioned or 'taken for granted'.

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'What is important about what pupils learn in school is not primarily the 'overt' curriculum of subjects like French and Biology, but values and beliefs such as conformity, knowing one's place, waiting one's turn, competitiveness, individual worth and deference to authority'. The hidden curriculum teaches pupils 'the way life is' and that education is something that is done to them rather than something that they do. The prevailing values of society are 'picked-up' by pupils.' (Whitty and Young, 1976).

The hidden curriculum is seen as a necessary part of schooling, but it is more of an approach than a 'thing'.

The approach encourages the asking of questions such as:

  • What is it necessary for?
  • Why does it work in particular ways?
  • How did it develop?
  • Whose interests are served by it?

Thus the concept is used as a way of seeking out the unacknowledged intentions and results of schooling and for questioning whether the aims of schools are really what they seem.

There are two levels of analysis:

  • Macro-sociological.
  • Micro-sociological.

Macro analysis studies the relationship between schooling and society as a whole. It is part of the 'social systems' approach of functionalism and Marxism.

At the Mirco level, analysis tends to be either - the hidden curriculum as necessary and beneficial. For example, Durkheim regarded the hidden curriculum as the moral component of the curriculum which involved students learning respect for authority, etc. Or the hidden curriculum is seen as malevolent and damaging. For Marxists, the hidden curriculum is concerned with the production, maintenance and legitimation of social inequality.

Micro approaches are based on the social constructionist perspective. The 'official' curriculum is ignored and the school is viewed as an organisation within which 'actors' (teachers and pupils), with varying amounts of power, interact and negotiate.

There are two main threads to this type of research:

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  1. An emphasis on organisational aspects of schooling. For example, space, time-tabling and filing.
  2. The 'construction of reality' - how teachers and students arrive at and negotiate 'the definition of the situation'.

For Marxists, the hidden curriculum refers to the authority structure of schooling - the hierarchical nature of both the structure and process of schooling conveys ideas of subordination and hierarchy that are essential for future workers, managers and bureaucrats. Therefore, it is the form of schooling not its content that is all important.

Marxists suggest that subordination and control were the original and explicitly stated functions of schooling but they have become hidden in recent years behind an official educational ideology of equal opportunity and meritocracy.

Consequently, analysis of hidden curriculum takes as its starting point the political nature of schooling and asks in whose interest it works.

Example: Bowles & Gintis (1976), Schooling in Capitalist America

Main points:

  • Schools act to furnish the economy with a labour force provided with the appropriate skills, personalities and attitudes.
  • Schools are involved in the production of a submissive, obedient and disciplined workforce.
  • This is a 'hidden' function of schooling because it is contrary to the prevailing ideology of schooling, which views the school as a device to promote social reform and social mobility.
  • The hidden curriculum operates through a 'correspondence' between the structure of schooling and the economic system. The nature of work and social relations fostered in the education system mirror those in capitalist society. For example, students obey orders, students have no control over the curriculum, students gain little intrinsic satisfaction from work. This 'mirrors' or 'corresponds' with students' future positions in the workforce. The worker has no control over work and experiences little intrinsic satisfaction.

Outcome: The reproduction of social relations of production.

There is no unified theoretical structure, just a series of studies linked by the idea that nothing in schools is quite what it seems.

The studies can be grouped into two main areas:

  1. The study of the school as an organisation - this explores the way organisational and bureaucratic aspects of schooling promote their own hidden curriculum.
  2. The study of classroom interaction - the idea that the 'reality' of the classroom is a negotiated reality. For students and teachers, the hidden curriculum consists of learning how to survive in the classroom.

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The general theoretical framework is provided by Goffman (Total Institutions). Although he concentrates on 'total institutions' - boarding schools, hospitals, asylums, the characteristics he describes provide a method of evaluating organisational styles in other institutions.

In total institutions:

  • Inmates lead enclosed formally administered lives.
  • There is a prescribed 'career' pattern and a privilege system designed to reward those who conform.
  • Inmates are united in opposition to staff. The staff form a separate and superior category.
  • Inmates are 'raw' material of routine work of the staff and arrangements are made to administer them efficiently.
  • Therefore, it is possible to see aspects of total institutions in most schools - from the organisation of the timetable to the symbolic barriers of playground and classrooms.

A similar approach was used by James (1968). He argued that the cumulative effect of various organisational features of schooling is to promote a hidden curriculum of competition. School organisation emphasises - competition not sharing, superiority not equality, incoherent learning, learning as unpleasant not joyful, that learning equals group listening and that knowledge is fragmented.

The allocation of time and space is an important aspect of decision-making. Meighan (1986) pictures the school as 'haunted' by the ghosts of past decisions and decision makers. For example, Space includes the spaces available for teaching; it suggests the possibilities and opportunities for teaching, it places constraints on what can be done. Space usage implies ideas that are often taken for granted.

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The message of the furniture in a school is 'sit and listen' - pupil behaviour is influenced by the architecture of the classroom. There is a similarity between the school and the factory-both have to be functional. Do different architectural arrangements foster different types of teaching and learning?

Time-tabling has implications forstudents and teachers. Time-tabling carries hidden messages about the importance/worthof different subjects and groups of students.

Again the main theoretical influence is Goffman, 'The Presentation of the Self in Everyday life'. Important concepts include; front, defining the situation, the negotiation of Reality.


Jackson (1968) 'Life in Classrooms':

Jackson used the term hidden curriculum to describe the unofficial 3Rs - rules, routines and regulations. These 3Rs had to be learned by students to survive comfortably in classrooms. Students develop classroom coping strategies to accommodate delay, denial and interruption. The survival strategies are learned at the expense of the official curriculum - learning is inhibited.

Holt (1969) 'How Children Fail':

'Right Answerism' is the survival strategy.It involves pleasing the teacher by giving or appearing to give the right answer. This encourages tactics that detract from the educational experience of school. Non-examined areas are neglected and 'memorisation' rather than 'understanding' is fostered.

Postman & Weingartner (1969)

The hidden curriculum consists of discovering that:

  1. Knowledge is beyond the power of students and is in any case, none of their business.
  2. Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement - the collection of 'facts' is the goal of education.
  3. The voice of authority is to be trusted more than independent judgement.
  4. One's own ideas and those of classmates are inconsequential.
  5. Feelings are irrelevant in education.
  6. There is always a single unambiguous answer to any question.
  7. Passive acceptance is a more desirable response to ideas than active criticism.

Woods (1983) 'Sociology and The School.

Woods outlines various strategies adopted by teachers and pupils in the classroom.

Woods is particularly interesting for his work on control in the classroom - strategies for survival - the hidden curriculum of teachers. He suggests that traditional normative means of control are often inadequate therefore teachers need other techniques to survive in the classroom.

Socialisation: Socialise children into tolerable forms of behaviour. 'Pupils are given drill in how to move about the school, sit in desks, raise hands... the puritan ethic of hard work, sober living and good manners is continuously urged upon them.'

Domination: Coercive control, punishment (even illegal in some cases) is used. 'There is a great deal of punching, knuckling, tweaking, clouting, slapping, slippering, hair-pulling, twisting, rulering and kicking.'

There are also humiliating verbal assaults - anger is part of a teachers 'front'. This seemed especially typical of P.E. staff who later become responsible for discipline. They use 'mortification' techniques.

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Negotiation The principle of exchange - in return for good behaviour work demands are lessened. Rules and compromises over rules are worked out between teacher and pupils. Teachers may abandon work ideals and settle for what they can get.

Fraternisation: 'If you can't beat them join them'. Minimise potential conflict and develop a sense of obligation/identification. Fraternisation has a number of forms-young teachers have natural advantages, other examples, humour, sport, television are used to maintain student interest. Teaching becomes entertainment.

Absence or Removal: Go sick - timetable manipulation; delaying tactics in lessons; unloading problem pupils on to others; use coursework - pupil-initiated work.

Ritual and Routine: These enable teachers to establish a 'regime', for example, registration, form periods, assemblies, timetables. Routine has a survival value. Textbook teaching, dictating notes are both coping mechanisms that can secure student support since it involves them in little effort.

S-Cool Revision Summary

This Revision Summary applies to all the Education topics...

Can You?

Explain how State education in Britain originated in the desire of one class to control another.

Outline the main practices involved in such control.

Can You?

Give an outline of the Functionalist and Marxist approaches to the role Education.

Offer criticisms of these approaches.

Explain the concept 'the hidden curriculum'.

Outline Bowles and Gintis explanation of the correspondence principle.

Can You?

Identify, describe and give examples of, the various attempts to explain class differences in educational attainment.

In particular, can you explain the main findings and supposed causes of educational failure.

Can You?

Give an account of the varying explanations of ethnic differences in educational attainment.

Demonstrate an understanding of the development of differing policy approaches towards ethnic minority pupils.

Can You?

Describe the main principles of market driven education.

Outline how these principles have been introduced into State education.

Cultural deprivation The belief that the culture of some groups within a population is debased.
Differentiated curriculum A curriculum that provides different types and level of course for different groups of learners.
Moral education Education designed to promote certain beliefs and behaviours as superior and others as inferior.
Individualistic competition Individuals are encouraged to compete against each other for academic status.
Consensus Theory A theory that proposes that societies are held together by agreement over basic values and beliefs.
Conflict Theory A theory that proposes that societies are best characterized by conflict between different groups within a society.
Correspondence Theory The idea that the social relations of the school are mirrored in the social relations of the workplace.
Cultural capital A store of the sort of culture that enables educational and social advancement.
Habitus A term that describes the cultural capital of the middle classes.
Selective tradition The idea that what counts as worthwhile knowledge is but a selection from the knowledge available.
Meritocracy I.Q. + effort.
Political arithmetic A reference to the quantitative research tradition in studies of education and social mobility.
Nature/nurture debate Explanations based in heredity or environment.
I.Q. Intelligence quotient (a measure of intelligence).
Sub-culture The culture of a distinct group within a societal culture.
Tripartite system The division of secondary education into 3 types under the 1944 Education Act.
Comprehensive An inclusive educational system. All pupils are taught within the same institution.
Butler Act The 1944 Education Act.
11+ The examination used to determine what type of secondary education a pupil should receive.
Self-fulfilling prophecy A belief that becomes true because it is believed to be true.
Material deprivation Deprivation caused by a lack of financial resources.
Restricted and elaborate codes Bernstein's description of two distinct speech codes.
Resistance A group refusal to accept dominant definitions of reality.
Racialised Stereotypical views of an ethnic group's characteristics that serves to identify them.
Assimilation The idea that immigrants could become like the host population.
Multi-culturalism Acceptance and celebration of cultural difference.
Antiracist Direct confrontation of racist belief/practice.
Colour racism Viewing ethnic diversity only in terms of black and white.
Newsom Report (1963) Marriage still seen as the vocation of girls.
Sexual division of labour Traditionally the division of tasks into masculine and feminine.
GIST A government initiative; girls into science and technology.
Kentucky fried education Bland homogenized education, the same everywhere.
Parental choice Parents can decide to which school they send their children.
Baker (1988 Act) The act that brought in the national curriculum.
National Curriculum Established core curriculum subjects, laid out curriculum guidelines, introduced standard attainment tests at key stages.
Opt out Schools were allowed to opt out of Local Education authority control and become grant maintained via central government funding.
City Technology Colleges Established by the 1988 Education Act to act as centers of excellence for vocational teaching.
Catchment area The geographical area around a school from where it draws the majority of its students.
Parentocracy A situation where parents choose schools.
Credentialism The pursuit of educational certificates.
League tables The rank ordering of schools by exam results.
Parsons The idea that schools perform particular functions for society. Primarily socialization and selection'.
Durkheim The division of labour (specialization).
Bowles and Gintis 'Schooling in Capitalist America' (1976).
Davis and Moore 'Some principles of Stratification (1948).
P. Saunders 'Social Class and Stratification' (A British Bell curve? - 1996).
Althusser Ideological State Apparatus.
R. Williams The selective tradition.
Bourdieu Cultural Capital, Habitus.
Binet The creator of the I.Q. test.
Eysenck and Jensen 1960's proposed idea of ethnic differences in I.Q.
Murray and Herrnstein 1990's idea that intelligence is genetic.
Douglas 'The Home and the School' (1964).
Bernstein Language codes; elaborate and restricted.
Lynch and O'Neil Poverty causes poor school performance.
Aggleton Middle class resistance to schooling. 'Rebels without a Cause?' (1987).
D. Hargreaves 'Social Relations in a Secondary School' (1967).
Lacey 'Hightown Grammar' (1970).
Ball 'Beachside Comprehensive' (1981).
P. Willis 'Learning to Labour' (1976).
Wright (1988 and 1992) Racialisation, conflict in schools.
Gilborn (1990) Penalisation of black students via teacher stereotypes.
Eggleston (1986) Black students placed in streams below their ability.
Mac an Ghaill (1988) Resistance by black students to educational institutions, but not to education itself.
Sewell (1997) Students positive about educations but rejected the schooling process.
Fuller (1983) Females able to cope with schooling but found it racist.
Foster (1996) Defends teachers argues they are not racist, but discriminate against bad behaviour.
Cole (1992) Racist stereotyping in textbooks.
Flew (1986) Inequality of educational outcome is a result of differences in culture.
Scrutiny (1986) Minorities should confine their cultural forms to their leisure time if it impedes their schooling.
Bernstein and Murray 'The Bell Curve' (1994).
Pearce (1986) Multiculturalism 'undermines' the British way of life.
Hill gate group Right wing group interested in influencing the content of the school curriculum.
Gilroy (1990) and Manhood (1989) Colour racism.
Scrutiny (1989) Suggests sexual division of labor has a biological basis.
Shaw (1977) Prospect of marriage works against career planning.
Sharpe (1976) Girl's ambitions are depressed.
Connell (1986) The impact of feminism has raised girls' career ambitions.
Riddell (1992) Girls link school subject choice to local labour market but also accept the prospect of domestic responsibilities.
Bisseret (1979) Importance of historical forces acting on girls.
Arnot (1991) Girls and boys tend to choose subjects that are traditionally associated with their sex.
Barber (1994) Boys have developed less positive attitudes to education.
Hargreaves (1989) Kentucky Fried Education.
Black Report (1987) Made recommendations taken up by the 1988 Education Reform Act.
Education Reform Act (1988) Introduction of National Curriculum, opting Out, City Technology Colleges.
OFSTED Produced by the 1992 Act. Concerned with standards and efficiency in schools.
David (1993) Coined the term 'parentocracy'.

Structural Theories

Most theory is nothing more than a hypothesis that seems to be confirmed by observation. That is a hunch that seems 'true'. Theory is thus an organizing principal, a particular viewpoint from which we view the world and interpret what we see.

What you will find with theory in sociology is that competing theories often agree about what can be observed but disagree about what these observations mean. Thus where theory leads you depends on how you interpret the situation or behaviour from which you start.


Both Marxism and Functionalism agree that schooling socialises students into the prevailing norms and values of a society. But, whether this is a 'good' thing or not depends on whether it is believed that the present state of a society (the status quo) is worth preserving or in need of change. You need to try and distinguish between statements of fact and statements of value.

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In sociology there are two main structural approaches:

  • Consensus theory
  • Conflict theory

These are the theories that attempt to relate educational systems to societal outcomes.

Note: These theories look at schooling from the 'outside'.

Functionalism investigates institutions to consider the functions they perform in society. The functionalist premise is that if an institution exists, then there must be some reason for its existence. As regards education, functionalists assume that educational institutions serve some societal need. Educational institutions are examined for the positive contribution they make towards maintaining society.

Education is seen as vital as regards socialization. All societies have to have ways of socialising new members, and some societies need specialist institutions for differentiating between people and allocating them to specific levels of economic activity within their society - such is the case with industrial societies.

So here are two central functions performed by educational institutions:

  1. General socialisation of the whole population into the dominant culture, values and beliefs of a society.
  2. Selecting people for different types and levels of education.

These two basic intentions are suggested by Parsons. He argues that education has the two central functions outlined above. In brief, education meets the needs of the system by:

  1. Making sure that all children have a basic commitment to their society's values and beliefs.
  2. Preparing individuals for their specific location within the social hierarchy.

Note: Point 1 is essentially what Marxists regard as the 'hidden curriculum'.

These two functions achieve different but overlapping goals. Transmitting norms and values promotes social solidarity. Differentiation matches skills to societal needs and supports society's economic needs.

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The idea of differentiation derives from Durkheim. He argued that as societies develop and become more complex they need to enhance the division of labour and provide specialist agencies for executing this function. Education takes over the role previously filled by the family, work and any other social location that presented a learning environment.

At the level of individuals, industrial societies require specialists and education is seen as providing the appropriate educational output. More generally, Durkheim explains this change in the nature of relationships between individuals in a society as the change from solidaristic to organic forms of social solidarity (cohesion).

The existence of a connection between personal abilities and industrial needs is assumed by the tendency towards meritocracy. That is, people come to fill particular positions on the basis of achievement, rather than their ascribed characteristics.

Note: The principal functionalist support for the existence and need for meritocracy is Davis and Moore, 'Some Principles of Stratification'.

However, although it is true that achievement is more important in societies such as ours, social class, gender and ethnicity remain as important 'indirect determinants' in the sense that the quality of a person's educational attainment can be related to these ascribed characteristics.

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The concept of meritocracy tends to lead functionalists into the area of genetics rather than culture. It is argued that some people are quite simply 'brighter' than others, and the education system picks these people out and gives them a higher level of education. Schools are seen as neutral and impartial screening devices.

Note: These ideas are still popular and increasingly powerful.

Clearly, it would be nonsense to deny that schools do differentiate and allocate, but to subscribe to the functionalist position requires more than this. Functionalists argue that this function is a good and necessary thing.

The functionalist account is an idealised one, based on the illusion that educational attainment is based on merit. The account does not 'cash out' in terms of observable outcomes. To believe that schooling develops talents for the benefit of society we would need to show; first, that educational achievement results from ability and, second, that such abilities are taken up by the occupation system in a free market. They cannot, it is an observable fact that educational achievement is systematically related to social factors and that educational success is not clearly related to occupational attainment.

Functionalism - Good points

  1. Structural perspective enables analysis to move beyond the level of the classroom or individual school.
  2. Links schools to systemic needs of the wider society.
  3. Identifies schools as transmitters of knowledge, norms and values and as a selecting mechanism.

Functionalism - Criticisms

  1. Overstates the extent to which education serves the 'common good'. Underestimates interests of dominant groups.
  2. School is a 'black box'. Does not investigate the 'meaning' of education for its participants.
  3. Too much emphasis on power of school to shape attitudes. People seen as 'cultural dopes'.

For Marxists, education is apart of the superstructure of society. This superstructure is regarded as being ultimately subordinate to the base - the economic organization of society. The economic arrangements of a society structure the holding of wealth and capital and create social classes.

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Marxists agree with functionalists that education contributes to the working of industrial society, and economic organisation. But, since Marxists disapprove of the organisation of society on capitalist lines, it follows that they disapprove of education in its present form.

Louis Althusser argued that economic relations structure education so as to reproduce these same economic relations. Education is part of the system of the reproduction of labour power. Schooling, argued Althusser, is an 'ideological state apparatus'. Schools work to ensure that those who are to do the work will do so co-operatively, out of a belief that the situation is just and reasonable.

From this point of view, the failure of so many pupils in schools is not a failing of the system (as for liberals) but actually what the schooling system is designed to do. So working class children who opt out, or fail, or find schools alien, are indications that schooling is working successfully. This reverses functionalism. Education is not designed to develop human potential, but to limit it.

Such an approach is clearly capable of fitting the evidence on patterns of achievement. It can also help to uncover working class attitudes to education as being realistic rather than bloody-minded. However, is the account overly simplified? Are the working class willing fodder for the capitalists?

Incidentally, critics have argued that the performance of the educational system in differentiating and hierarchically structuring students is not limited to capitalist economies. Karabel and Halsey point out that the actual performance of the educational system is remarkably similar in socialist countries.

Marxism - Good points

  1. Unveils the interests of the dominant and powerful groups in shaping schooling.
  2. Reveals the undeclared agenda of schooling. But, so do functionalists.
  3. Documents resistance by students to negative labelling.

Marxism - Criticism

  1. People treated as 'cultural dopes'.
  2. Tends towards conspiracy theory
  3. Very value laden (capitalism - no advantages?).
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