Theresa Petray

The key goals of this chapter are to explain that:

  • Education and schooling perform a variety of functions in society. These include training young people in academic fields, but also socialising them to become effective members of society.
  • Mass education emerged to standardise and homogenise the training and socialisation of young people.
  • Social beliefs in meritocracy, or success based on talent, may be mistaken. Inequalities in the education system suggest that educational success is based more on a student’s position in social structures than their inherent talent, knowledge, or effort.
  • Different sociological theoretical perspectives have a variety of understandings of the purpose of schooling and the reasons for differential success in education.


Very large old stone building overlooking Sydney Harbour
Figure. School of the Sacred Heart (Kincoppal-Rose Bay), is a private, Roman Catholic, day and boarding school predominantly for girls, located in Rose Bay, an eastern suburb of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Kincoppal School from afar by Adam.J.W.C. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

What was your time in school like? In Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, attending some form of schooling is an almost universal experience, but that experience will differ depending on where you went to school, what kind of school it was, what time period you were in school, and who you are in society.

Although both Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia have a lot in common across our two societies, schooling is one place with some key differences. Just 3.6% of students in Aotearoa New Zealand attend private schools – in contrast to Australia where 35% of students are enrolled in a private school (Hernandez, 2020). In Aotearoa New Zealand, in addition to state schools (also known as public schools) and private (or independent) schools, students can be enrolled in state-integrated schools. This category of school must meet certain requirements, for example teaching the national curriculum, and receives the same funding per student as state schools, but maintains some distinct characteristics, for example, religious schools (Hernandez, 2020).

In Australia, by contrast, private schooling is much more common, especially at high school (where 41% of students are enrolled in a private school [Hernandez, 2020]). There are regular public debates about how schools in Australia are funded – with private schools often receiving substantial government funding in addition to the fees they charge (Beazley  & Cassidy, 2023).

According to the global body UNICEF, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand both have education systems with high inequality, with students from disadvantaged families missing out on many of the benefits of schooling that other young people enjoy (UNICEF Office of Research, 2018).

In this chapter, we will explore the sociology of education so that you might consider the reasons for differences in choices around schooling, and the implications of schooling on individuals and society. Although learning, including explicit teaching, may happen in a range of settings including families, social clubs and sports teams, the workplace, and friend groups, in this chapter when we talk about education we are referring to formal systems of education including primary and high school, and higher education like universities.

Functions of Education

Individuals learn from the moment they are born, right up until they die. Much of this learning is informal, involving watching, imitating, playing, and discovering. Formal education, though, typically begins in early childhood and goes through the late teenage years, and for some, continues much longer.

Our education system socialises us to our society (see the identity, self and culture chapter). We learn cultural expectations and norms, which are reinforced by our teachers, our textbooks, and our classmates. For students outside the dominant culture, this aspect of the education system can pose significant challenges. You might remember learning your multiplication tables in primary school. Maybe you were explicitly taught the social rules of taking turns on the swings at recess, or maybe you picked those up unofficially. You probably weren’t told directly whose voices were more highly valued, but these details are taught in subtle ways throughout the formal curriculum. This includes everything from the authors you read to who gets called on more to speak in class.

🛠️ Sociological Tool Kit

If you are currently studying any subjects that don’t just refer to a textbook, or you have recently completed high school or have children who are in school now, have a look at the reading list. Who are the authors? What kind of diversity is there based on gender, nationality, race & ethnicity? Are there any obvious examples of inclusivity based on sexuality or disability? Does the diversity of the reading list represent the diversity of the class? Are students likely to be able to identify with at least some of the authors on their reading list, and see role models with whom they have something in common?

Is the diversity of the authors something that you can discover easily, or do you need to do a lot of research to find out who the authors are? Is this a topic of discussion in your classes? In our chapter on race, ethnicity, and indigeneity we discussed the idea of unconscious bias. These biases affect people in many different domains, including education and schooling. One factor that influences unconscious bias is the representation of diversity, including in who is considered an ‘expert’ or worthy of studying in schools.

The video [3:45] below explains unconscious bias in the context of the classroom specifically.

Schools can be agents of change or conformity, teaching individuals to think outside of the family and the local norms into which they were born, while at the same time acclimatising them to their tacit place in society. They provide students with skills for communication, social interaction, and work discipline that can create pathways to both independence and obedience.

Formal education promotes two main socialising tasks: homogenisation and social sorting. Students from diverse backgrounds learn a standardised curriculum that effectively transforms diversity into homogeneity. Students learn a common knowledge base, a common culture, and a common sense of society’s official priorities, and perhaps more importantly, they learn to locate their place within it. They are provided with a unifying framework for participation in institutional life and at the same time are sorted into different paths.

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Sociologist David McCallum (2017) writes in this article in The Conversation, about “mission schools” as a tool of colonisation. Around Australia, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were moved to reserves and missions, and schools were often used in an attempt to separate children from their families and cultures. In schools, children were taught Christianity and European ways of life but trained in menial labour to sort them into a path of servitude.

Formal and Informal Education

Education is a social institution through which a society’s children are taught basic academic knowledge, learning skills, and cultural norms. Education is not solely concerned with the basic academic concepts that a student learns in the classroom. Societies also educate their children outside of the school system, in matters of everyday practical living. These two types of learning are referred to as formal education and informal education.

Informal education describes learning about cultural values, norms, and expected behaviours by participating in a society. This type of learning occurs both through the formal education system and at home. Our earliest learning experiences generally happen via parents, relatives, and others in our community. Through informal education, we learn how to dress for different occasions, how to perform regular life routines like shopping for and preparing food, and how to keep our bodies clean.

Cultural transmission refers to the way people come to learn the values, beliefs, and social norms of their culture. Both informal and formal education include cultural transmission. For example, a student will learn about cultural aspects of modern history in a history classroom. In that same classroom, the student might learn the cultural norm for asking a classmate out on a date through passing notes and whispered conversations.

📽️ Sociology on Screen

American TV series Never Have I Ever (Netflix, 2020-2023) tells the story of Indian-American high school student Devi Vishwakumar and her friends as they navigate school, family, and life. In the series, we see many forms of informal education as Devi seeks to throw off her ‘nerd’ identity and become part of the popular crowd. Throughout the show’s four seasons, Devi relies as much on passing glances, gossip, and body language as she does on advice from her friends and family about how to navigate the social world of high school. The show also gives us insights into the challenges of not fitting in based on sexuality and neurodivergence, the way that social roles can influence school performance, and more.

A very simple wooden classroom. There are bench seats and the windows are blocked.
Figure. Ipswich Girls Grammar School by Unknown author is in the Public Domain, CC0

In contrast, formal education describes the learning of academic facts and concepts through a formal curriculum. Arising from the tutelage of ancient Greek thinkers, centuries of scholars have examined topics through formalised methods of learning. Three hundred years ago few people knew how to read and write. Education was available only to the higher classes; they had the means to access scholarly materials, plus the luxury of leisure time that could be used for learning. Wealthy families hired personal tutors to educate their children, in topics like history, literacy, geography and languages as well as etiquette and ‘proper’ conduct. The rise of capitalism and its accompanying social changes made education more important to the economy and therefore more accessible to the general population.

First Nations and Māori people had their own means of formally teaching young people for as long as they have lived in the places we now call Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand (Heffernan, 2021). While they may not have had school buildings, with students attending classes with a teacher for specific lessons in reading, science, and maths, they nonetheless had traditions for sharing their beliefs, social rules, stories, understandings of the natural world, and their own histories across generations.

Every nation in the world is equipped with some form of education system, though those systems vary greatly. The major factors affecting education systems are the resources and money that are utilised to support those systems in different nations. As you might expect, a country’s wealth has much to do with the amount of money spent on education. In Australia, 11.1% of total government expenditure went to education in 2019, and Aotearoa New Zealand spent 11.2% on education (OECD iLibrary, 2022a,-b).

International differences in education systems are not solely a financial issue. The value placed on education, the amount of time devoted to it, and the distribution of education within a country also play a role in those differences. For example, students in South Korea spend 220 days a year in school, compared to approximately 200 days per year for students in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia. In Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, around half of people between 25-34 years old have a tertiary education (OECD iLibrary, 2022a,-b).

Another global concern in education is universal access. This term refers to people’s equal ability to participate in an education system. On a world level, access might be more difficult for certain groups based on race, class, or gender. There are also issues of geography, with students in remote locations not having access to schools close to home. Accessibility for all students regardless of physical disability or neurodivergence is another concern that is receiving increased attention.

Formal education as we think of it today came to Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1800s with the arrival of Christian institutions. There were schools for settler children as well as attempts to ‘educate’ First Nations and Māori students in European and Christian ways (Barry, 2008; Calman, 2012). The shift from primarily religious schools to mostly secular State schools happened between the 1870s and 1890s across the colonies in Australia (Campbell, 2007).

The Victorian government set up a public school system in that colony beginning in 1872 – providing free, non-religious, and compulsory education to the children in the colony. The Victorian legislation at this time required children to attend school between the ages of six and fifteen. Religious schools were still available, but they now had to compete with free public schools (National  Museum of Australia, 2022). Other colonies followed suit in the years that followed. Contemporary educational systems in Aotearoa New Zealand and in Australia are the result of this progressive expansion of education. Today, basic education is considered a right and responsibility for all citizens. Expectations of this system focus on formal education, with curricula and testing designed to ensure that students learn the facts and concepts that society believes are basic knowledge.

The idea of universal mass education is a relatively recent idea and one that is still not achieved in many parts of the world. Schooling is one mechanism through which governments can invest in their citizens to maximise public welfare. Australian sociologist Michael Pusey (1991), though, argues that the shift to private schooling (and health care, transport systems, etc.) means the government has largely let go of its responsibility for wellbeing in favour of efficiency and economy.

The funding of private schools by governments in Australia is a particularly contentious political issue. A 2011 report on school funding, led by David Gonski, found that state schools enrol the vast majority of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and students who are Indigenous, have a disability and are from a remote area (Gonski, 2011 ). The Gonski report (2011) also recommended a change to government funding that would be based on the needs of the student body at a particular school, so that, for example, a school with a high proportion of students who speak English as an additional language would get additional funds to support them. However, very few of the report’s recommendations were actually implemented and the inequalities in schooling remain (Ore, 2022).

As we mentioned above, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand both rank unfortunately high on global measures of inequality in schooling systems. This matters because those with higher levels of education tend to have better health and wellbeing, income, employment, working conditions, and other social benefits (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2023).

This inequality may be one reason for the popularity of private schools in Australia, as even families from low- and moderate-socioeconomic backgrounds seek to set their children up for success and upward mobility. The schooling system itself becomes subject to a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby families concerned about poor schools relocate their children to private schools, further exacerbating the problems in those public schools. Consider, though, why the same has not occurred in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Education, Social Mobility, and Meritocracy

Despite persistent inequalities in schooling, many Australians and New Zealanders, along with lots of Americans, Canadians, and others, believe that education is the great equaliser. This is based on a belief in meritocracy – the expectation that success is rewarded, that people get ahead because of their talent and achievements. The belief in meritocracy suggests that regardless of someone’s socioeconomic status, race, gender, religion, or geography, they have every chance to succeed if they work hard.

In reality, though, we have seen that one’s experience of schooling is different depending on their position within social structures. Students begin schooling at different starting points in terms of academic skills, familiarity with formal schooling systems, and social and emotional development. When a student comes from a background that is not well represented in the curriculum, or is not valued by society, they tend to have poorer educational outcomes. This is not because they are not as smart or hard-working as their classmates.

Students who feel a lack of belonging in school may begin to resist or reject their schooling. While we may look at this and see students setting themselves up for failure, the students themselves may consider their resistance a way of maintaining their resilience in a world they are excluded from (Bottrell, 2007).

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Believing in meritocracy can be harmful to disadvantaged young people, according to research. This article in The Atlantic outlines a study that finds that those who are already disadvantaged are likely to internalise negative stereotypes if they believe that they are being treated fairly by the system.

Statistics show us that educational inequalities correlate strongly to existing social stratification. Thus, we should think critically about claims of meritocracy in our education systems.

In Australia, some key educational outcomes include the following:

  • 92% of women aged 20-24 had completed year 12 in 2020, compared to 87% of men (Hare, 2022). This equates to 90% overall but is 66% overall for Indigenous young people (AIHW, 2023).
  • One-third of Australian school students did not meet minimum literacy and numeracy standards in the 2023 NAPLAN test results (Duffy & Young, 2023). 10% are identified as needing additional support.
  • NAPLAN test results vary widely. Students identified as needing support are more likely to have a lower socioeconomic status, be Indigenous, and attending very remote schools (Duffy & Young, 2023).
  • While Australian students’ performance across international test scores have fallen across the board, the poorest 10% of students have fallen almost 50% faster than the wealthiest 10%, meaning the gap is increasing (Hetherington, 2018).
  • In these tests, Indigenous students tend to score lower on average, though the gap has been closing in recent years as non-Indigenous student scores have declined (AIHW, 2023).
  • 20% of boys in year 9 do not meet the Australian minimum standard in tests of writing, and nearly 14% do not meet the standard in tests of reading (Hare, 2022).

In Aotearoa New Zealand, here are some key educational figures:

  • Aotearoa New Zealand has a large performance gap in literacy tests, with three benchmark levels between those scoring in the highest 10% of test results and those in the lowest 10% (UNICEF, 2018). This is not just due to differences in family background, but at least 25% of the variation in reading scores is due to differences in schools (UNICEF, 2018).
  • In Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as in Australia, first-generation migrant children have significantly lower reading scores than non-migrant children (UNICEF, 2018).

Theoretical Perspectives on Education

While it is clear that education plays an integral role in individuals’ lives as well as society as a whole, sociologists view that role from many diverse points of view. Functionalists believe that education equips people to perform different functional roles in society. Critical sociologists view education as a means of widening the gap in social inequality. Feminist theorists point to evidence that sexism in education continues to prevent women from achieving a full measure of social equality. Symbolic interactionists study the dynamics of the classroom, the interactions between students and teachers, and how those affect everyday life. In this section, you will learn about each of these perspectives.


Functionalists view education as one of the more important social institutions in a society. They contend that education contributes two kinds of functions: manifest (or primary) functions, which are the intended and visible functions of education; and latent (or secondary) functions, which are the hidden and unintended functions.

There are several major manifest functions associated with education. The first is socialisation. Beginning in early childhood, students are taught to practise various societal roles. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), who established the academic discipline of sociology, characterised schools as “socialisation agencies that teach children how to get along with others and prepare them for adult economic roles” (Durkheim  1898/1956).

This socialisation also involves learning the rules and norms of the society as a whole. In the early days of compulsory education, students learned the dominant culture. This ideal is perhaps challenged by multiculturalism, where students may need to learn about multiple cultural norms, or in many cases will feel unrepresented in the education system.

School systems also transmit the core values of society through manifest functions like social control. One of the roles of schools is to teach students conformity to law and respect for authority. Obviously, such respect, given to teachers and administrators, will help a student navigate the school environment. This function also prepares students to enter the workplace and the world at large, where they will continue to be subject to people who have authority over them. Fulfilment of this function rests primarily with classroom teachers and instructors who are with students all day.

Education also provides one of the major methods used by people for upward social mobility. This function is referred to as social placement. University and graduate schools are viewed as vehicles for moving students closer to the careers that will give them the financial freedom and security they seek. As a result, university students are often more motivated to study areas that they believe will be advantageous on the social ladder. A student might choose to study business courses over a class in Victorian poetry because they see business as a stronger vehicle for financial success.

Education also fulfils latent functions. Much goes on in school that has little to do with formal education. For example, you might notice an attractive fellow student when he gives a particularly interesting answer in class – catching up with him and making a date speaks to the latent function of courtship fulfilled by exposure to a peer group in the educational setting. The educational setting introduces students to social networks that might last for years and can help people find jobs after their schooling is complete. Of course, with social media, these networks are easier than ever to maintain.

Another latent function is the ability to work with others in small groups, a skill that is transferable to a workplace and that might not be learned in a home-school setting. In the classroom, students learn both how to work together and how to compete against one another academically.

The educational system, especially as experienced on university campuses, has traditionally provided a place for students to learn about various social issues. There is ample opportunity for social and political advocacy, as well as the ability to develop tolerance for the many views represented on campus.

Functionalists recognise other ways that schools educate and enculturate students. One of the most important values students in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia learn is that of individualism – the valuing of the individual over the value of groups or society as a whole. This is taught through systems of ranking, rewarding students for being the “best”, achieving the highest scores, and otherwise distinguishing themselves from their peers.

Another role of schools, according to functionalist theory, is that of sorting, or classifying students based on academic merit or potential. The most capable students are identified early in schools through testing and classroom achievements. Exceptional students are often placed in accelerated programs in anticipation of successful university attendance. Other students are guided into vocational training programs with an emphasis on technical and domestic skills.

Functionalists also contend that school, particularly in recent years, is taking over some of the functions that were traditionally undertaken by family. Society relies on schools to teach about human sexuality as well as basic skills such as budgeting and job applications – topics that at one time were addressed by the family.

Critical Sociology

Critical sociologists generally do not believe that public schools reduce social inequality. Rather, they believe that the educational system reinforces and perpetuates social inequalities arising from differences in class, gender, race, and ethnicity. Where functionalists see education as serving a beneficial role, critical sociologists view it more, well, critically. To them, it is important to examine how educational systems preserve the status quo and guide people of lower status into subordinate positions in society.

The fulfilment of one’s education is closely linked to social class. Students of low socioeconomic status (SES) are generally not afforded the same opportunities as students of higher status, no matter how great their academic ability or desire to learn. For example in Australia, low-SES students are generally less prepared than high-SES students at school entry in terms of literacy and numeracy, emotional maturity and social competence (Lamb et al., 2020). This inequality follows them through their schooling years: 41.5% of 24-year-olds in Australia have studied or are studying a University degree, compared to only 17.9% of low-SES 24-year-olds (Lamb et al., 2020). Barriers like the cost of higher education, but also more subtle cultural cues, undermine the promise of education as a means of providing equality of opportunity.

Picture a student from a working-class home who wants to do well in school. On a Monday, they are assigned a paper that is due Friday. On Monday evening, they have to babysit a younger sibling because their mum is at work. Tuesday and Wednesday they work themselves, stocking shelves after school until 10:00 p.m. By Thursday, the only day they might have available to work on that assignment, the student is so exhausted they cannot bear to start the paper. The student’s mum, though she would like to help, is so tired herself that she is unable to give the encouragement or support her child needs. Since English is her second language, she has difficulty with some of the educational materials. They also lack a computer and printer at home, which most of the student’s classmates have, so they have to rely on the public library or school system for access to technology. As this story shows, many students from working-class families must contend with helping out at home, contributing financially to the family, having poor study environments, and lacking material support from their families. This is a difficult match with education systems that adhere to a traditional curriculum that is more easily understood and completed by students of higher social classes.

Such a situation leads to social class reproduction, extensively studied by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He researched how, parallel to economic capital (as analysed by Marx), cultural capital, or the accumulation of cultural knowledge that helps one navigate a culture, alters the experiences and opportunities available to French students from different social classes. Bourdieu (1997) emphasised that like economic capital, cultural capital in the form of cultural taste, knowledge, patterns of speech, clothing, proper etiquette, etc. is difficult and time-consuming to acquire. Members of the upper and middle classes have more cultural capital than families of lower-class status, and they can pass it on to their children from the time that they are toddlers. Lack of cultural capital is often a means by which people are excluded from the educational system. As a result, the educational system maintains a cycle in which the dominant culture’s values are rewarded. Instruction and tests cater to the dominant culture and leave others struggling to identify with values and competencies outside their social class. For example, there has been a great deal of discussion over what standardised tests such as the IQ test and aptitude tests truly measure. Many argue that the tests group students by cultural ability rather than by natural intelligence.

The cycle of rewarding those who possess cultural capital is found in formal educational curricula as well as in the hidden curriculum, which refers to the type of non-academic knowledge that one learns through informal learning and cultural transmission. The hidden curriculum is never formally taught but it is implied in the expectation that those who accept the formal curriculum, institutional routines, and grading methods will be successful in school. This hidden curriculum reinforces the positions of those with higher cultural capital and serves to bestow status unequally. Thus, critical sociologists are especially critical of the suggestion that our schooling systems are a meritocracy, where talent, skill, and effort are the means of success. Instead, merit is itself a social construction and only certain accomplishments are considered worthy of reward. The video below further explains the concept of cultural capital [5:29].

Critical sociologists also point to tracking, a formalised sorting system that places students on “tracks” (advanced versus low achievers) that perpetuate inequalities. While educators may believe that students do better in tracked classes because they are with students of similar ability and may have access to more individual attention from teachers, critical sociologists feel that tracking leads to self-fulfilling prophecies in which students live up (or down) to teacher and societal expectations (Zajda, 2021).

As noted above, IQ tests have been criticised for bias – for testing cultural knowledge rather than actual intelligence. For example, a test item may ask students what instruments belong in an orchestra. To correctly answer this question requires certain cultural knowledge – knowledge most often held by more affluent people who typically have more exposure to orchestral music. On the basis of IQ and aptitude testing, students are frequently sorted into categories that place them in enriched program tracks, average program tracks, and special needs or remedial program tracks. Though experts in testing claim that bias has been eliminated from tests, conflict theorists maintain that this is impossible. The tests are another way in which education does not provide equal opportunities, but instead maintains an established configuration of power.

Feminist Theory

Feminist theory aims to understand the mechanisms and roots of gender inequality in education, as well as their societal repercussions. Like many other institutions of society, educational systems are characterised by unequal treatment and opportunity for women. On a global scale, there is a 7% gender literacy gap; in other words, while 90% of adult men are literate, just 83% of women are (Statista, 2023). These are high numbers, but feminist sociologists seek to understand the gender differences and consider how that gap may be closed.

In countries like Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, histories of poor educational attainment by girls have reversed. In Australia in 2019, 59% of higher education students were women (Workplace Gender Equality Agency [WGEA], 2021). But despite overall increases in women’s participation and success in education, there are still gendered differences in their experience. Women are more likely to study education, health, creative arts, and society and culture fields. Men are overrepresented in fields like information technology and engineering. On leaving university, men generally attract a higher starting salary than women, even where they were in the same field of study (WGEA, 2021). This leads the WGEA to conclude that women are continually undervalued in most industries (see the chapter on gender).

When women face limited opportunities for education, their capacity to achieve equal rights, including financial independence, is limited. Feminist theory seeks to understand the causes of these inequalities, and the consequences for individual women and for society more broadly. Feminist activism then seeks to promote women’s rights to equal education (and its resultant benefits) across the world.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism sees education as one way that labelling theory can be demonstrated in action. A symbolic interactionist might say that this labelling has a direct correlation to those who are in power and those who are being labelled. For example, low standardised test scores or poor performance in a particular class often lead to a student being labelled as a low achiever. Such labels are difficult to “shake off,” which can create a self-fulfilling prophecy (Merton 1968).

In his book High School Confidential, Jeremy Iverson (2006) details his experience as a Stanford graduate posing as a student at a California high school. One of the problems he identifies in his research is that of teachers applying labels that students are never able to lose. One teacher told him, without knowing he was a bright graduate of a top university, that he would never amount to anything (Iverson, 2006). Iverson obviously did not take this teacher’s assessment to heart. However, when an actual 17-year-old student hears this from a person with authority, it is no wonder that the student might begin to “live down to” that label.

The labelling with which symbolic interactionists concern themselves extends to the very degrees that symbolise the completion of education. Credentialism embodies the emphasis on certificates or degrees to show that a person has a certain skill, has attained a certain level of education, or has met certain job qualifications. These certificates or degrees serve as a symbol of what a person has achieved, allowing the labelling of that individual.

Indeed, as these examples show, labelling theory can significantly impact a student’s schooling. This is easily seen in the educational setting, as teachers and more powerful social groups within the school dole out labels that are adopted by the entire school population.

In Summary

  • Education is a key agent of socialisation, both via the formal curriculum and the norms and expectations we learn implicitly. Some students are encouraged to think for themselves, but generally school teaches conformity and communicates one’s place within society.
  • Free public education is a relatively new phenomenon in history and teach young people in the areas that are deemed socially valuable. Globally, and within Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, considerable inequalities exist in access to and success within formal education systems.
  • Meritocracy, or success based on talent, is a popularly held belief that underpins our education system. However, we can see that who someone is or where they live plays a considerable part in how successful they will be in school, regardless of their inherent skills or intelligence, or how hard they work.
  • For Functionalists, education is a key social institution in society which fulfills functions including socialisation,  social control, social placement, ability to work in groups, and enculturation. For Critical Sociologists, schools are viewed as a site of, and contributor to, ongoing inequality. Symbolic interactionists consider ideas like labelling theory – the labels which are applied to students in school can become ‘self-fulfilling prophesies’ as students live up (or down) to expectations.


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