Inequalities in Education

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The sociological study of education looks at the way different social institutions affect the process of education and how this impacts on students. Education is widely perceived to be a positive social institution where individuals can acquire knowledge and learn new skills. However, some would argue that this is not the case and that education produces an unequal society and is a negative institution where individuals are socialised to accept such inequality. This essay will explore the inequalities in education to establish how they occur. By examining Marxist, Functionalist and Interactionist perspectives, explanations for such inequalities can be understood.

Historically, in Britain formal schooling was a preserve of higher social classes. Education was largely provided by private institutions, such as churches form the middle ages onwards, with an aim to provide the bureaucratic elite with a means to run government. The state first assumed full responsibility for education in 1870, with the Foster's Education Act. In 1880, school attendance was made compulsory up to the age of 10, ensuring basic primary education for all. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) The state took responsibility for secondary education with the Fisher Education Act of 1918 and attendance was made compulsory until the age of 14. The formal leaving age was raised again on two occasions, in 1947 to 15, and to 16 in 1972. By 1900 only 1.2 per cent of pupils stayed in education after the age of 17 and by 1939, 5.8 per cent of pupils stayed in education past the age of 17, but it was not until the 1960s, when polytechnic universities were introduced, that everyone capable of benefiting from higher education was able to attend a higher education establishment. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) However, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government of the 1980s began to view education in terms of the needs of the economy and started to reduce state economic investment. Thatcher's government had a general mistrust of the liberal and free-thinking culture of higher education institutes and began to restrict spending in Arts based subjects. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) The 1988 Education Act introduced the common national curriculum, which provided guidelines for teachers about what they were required to teach. (Giddens, 2001) The National Curriculum was introduced to ensure that everyone would receive the same basic level of education.

In western societies there is a general agreement that education should be based on an equality of opportunity. However, there is evidence to suggest that people with certain social characteristics succeed more than others. (Kirby et al, 1999) Sociologists have focused on social background to explain the relative failure of working class children compared to middle class children. Evidence suggests that the higher a person's social class, they are more likely to achieve greater education success. The most obvious explanation for differences is the intelligence of the individual. The 1944 Education Act established the tripartite system. Children were allocated to one of three types of school, grammar, technical or secondary modern, on the basis of the results of an intelligence test, taken at 11 years, the eleven-plus. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) Grammar schools provided an education for those who performed highly on the eleven plus, while other pupils who has a lower score were taught in either a technical or secondary modern school. The eleven plus examination showed a correlation between social class, where more middle class children scored highly and therefore gained places at grammar schools. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004) However, Britain has a differential educational system that gives people the right to privately educate their children if they wish and can afford to. League tables of schools, which are published every year, show consistently show private schools, such as Eton, Cheltenham Ladies College and...
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