Educational Inequality and Sociological Models

The sort of education system we have now is the result of a long series of particular political intentions in education.  Certain political ideas  have been heavily influential - ideas of separatism and social control in the C19th, ideas which link education to economic growth ("education as investment"), ideas about equality of opportunity, justice, fairness and so on.

We have seen the gradual development of systematic sociological research to test the effectiveness of government policies, research which has tended to show, classically in the 50's and 60's (which was its heyday) the continuing effects of social background on educational attainment (see files on  factors in underachievement or  social mobility ).  This has led to new Government policies - "positive discrimination" and intervention at the nursery/infant/junior end, comprehensive schools at the secondary stage, designed to achieve a number of linked educational and social goals - and even the developmentof the world's first "comprehensive university", the "university of the 2nd chance" - the Open University  (see file), developed out of the same educational philosphy that had produced these other policies. 

These policies shared a remarkable consensus about the suitability of schooling for everyone. The contents of schooling, so to speak, were rarely questioned - the problem, largely, was to increase access to the good things that conventional schools were offering, or, at the very least, to alter the focus slightly in schooling (eg to emphasise more of the social goals of schooling). Despite the fierce nature of party politics in the period,  the parties shared many of the deep assumptions about schooling. There was, for example, no Labour Party policy to create a genuinely populist education suitable for all as in say China (indeed, Johnson 1981 argues that pressures towards genuinely popular education, built around the desires and needs of the  working class themelves were deliberately rejected by the State's first attempts to private universal education in the 1870s).

A similar, and linked, consensus was found in the sociology of the day.

Sociological Models

This file considers functionalist models (by far the most  poipular with the politicians and educationalists of the day.For a discussion of marxist models see, for example,Bowles and Gintis ).

Davis and Moore

The most directly applicable functionalist model is expressed in a classic way in Davis and Moore (D & M) (1967).  For them, stratification happens to be universal and this indicates some universal (functional) necessity.  Something in society itself is producing inequality.  The background is found in functionalist theory - societies are organised in order to survive, adapt and solve problems, and they develop in varous functional mechanisms to solve these problems and pursue their central goals.   The stratification system is one of these functional mechanisms.
So we have to have rewards and differentials (not only financial ones but differences of esteem too) - and thus inequality is functional, as it ensures that the most important positions fitted by the most able and best suited candidates - the more important the position for social survival, or the fewer people who are qualified and willing to be trained, the greater the rewards. 

What are the key problems stratification systems evolve to solve?  The major one is placing and motivating individuals in different positions in society.  The problem is this:  not all positions in society are equally pleasant or demanding, and some are more functionally important than others.   We need to motivate individuals to take on functionally important positions, especially if these are also unpleasant or demanding.  It is an especially acute  problem if the numbers of suitable applicants are limited - if the skills and talents suitable for important positions are scarce.   Societies answer this problem by attaching different rewards to functionally important or demanding positions (rewards like income, leisure, status).

So all societies develop different reward systems to motivate people to take on important or demanding positions.  Those positions with the highest rewards must reflect either (a) the functional importance of job for society, or (b) that the job requires demanding training or the development of skills etc.  Stratification is thus "an unconsciously evolved device" (D & M) designed to ensure that the most important positions are filled by the most capable persons.

All societies must develop stratification systems.  The actual type of stratification systems varies according to the specific needs of society.  Some areas, in some societies, are more functionally important than others - e.g. in medieval societies religion was the most functionally important area because it was the main source of social unificiation - hence religious positions were likely to gain the highest rewards.  Another functionally important area is Government. 

In industrial societies,  though, technical knowledge is very important, so rewards are greatest in jobs requiring  the highest levels of such knowledge.  As for differences in wealth and income in industrial societies - these simply reflect the different functional importance of jobs too - so managers, scientists, technicians, engineers and politicians do well because these are very important functional jobs in industrial society. 

Davis and Moore also point out some problems with industrial societies, especially the tendency for those with wealth to perpetuate their position and cling on even if their jobs cease to be functionally important,or their skills relevant.  There is also the tendency for those with suitable knowledge to perpetuate their own expertise - to dominate training in their own skills whether relevant or not, and generally to develop restrictive practices. 

All societies have both a universal necessity for some sort of stratification system and specific features shaping actual systems.  And other variables are possible too - e.g. some societies have vast differences in rewards, others smaller, some allow a good deal of openness, others are closed and self-perpetuating.  But some sort of inequality is always with us.

This model was quite influential and can still be detected in Government policy today. It was adopted especially, in a modified form, by Crosland and the Labour Party, as we shall see below. (Antony Crosland was both a Minister for Education and a writer on education, drawing upon sociological work (see Crosland 1980)).  It is worth pointing out that there are some problems with it.  Marxists disagree pretty fundamentally - but there are other problems too.


Tumin (in Bendix & Lipset 1967) identifies the key assumptions and questions them, working from what would probabaly qualify as a "conflict perspective".

1. What is functional importance, how can we calculate it objectively, aren't all jobs equally important?  Isn't the whole notion really camouflaging the value judgements and the real processes of bargaining power whereby particular groups seize rewards and then justify them in terms of functional importance? 

2. Is talent naturally limited or artificially limited as in Davis and Moore's own fears?  In particular, doesn't the stratification system work to deny the talents of the underprivileged - how rational is society at detecting talent?  (We might add that some writers say that because of automation and mechanisation we don't need that much talent to do jobs these days anyway - see Bowles and Gintis).

3. Does training involve sacrifice needing large rewards, (how do you see your stay at College?).   If there is sacrifice how large should the rewards be to compensate and who do so many rewards, (income and status and job satisfaction) tend to cluster together?

4. There are negative functions (dysfunctions) of stratification too for Tumin - stratification systems become dysfunctional because elites won't let go even if functional requirements change, and the underprivileged feel excluded, resentful and angry.  NB Davis offers a reply to these points too, (in Bendix and Lipset). 

Turner and social mobility

Turner's article added to the momentum of functionalist work by focussing upon various modes of social mobility (much more optimistic a focus than the statics of social stratification)  There are two ways to recruit and train people to develop talents and take over functionally important positions. 

 "Sponsored mobility" involves the early selection of recruits by the exisitng elite who are then carefully given the best available education to equip them with the skills (technical and social) they will need when they fill positions of power.  Such a system is to be found in the old tripartite system - early selection at 11 and then a classic grammar school education for the chosen few. 
"Contest mobility"  has no early selection but offers a continual open contest, prolonged throughout schooling, involving common resources and equal access to educational rewards.  Out of this prolonged contest, the best (most deserving) would emerge finally and go on to take the final prizes - status is earned (achieved) rather than bestowed (ascribed).  The systems are related to the cultural norms of two societies in question (Britain and USA - sponsored and contest respectively).

Advantages and disadvantages are attached to both - e.g. Turner says the sponsored system raises obvious problems since: 

 many are excluded at an early age
 sponsorship involves a tendency for the elite to be self-perpetuating 
 somehow those excluded have to be persuaded that they really are not good enough and should be happy with their lot. 

In the contest system, problems are slightly different:  - everyone's in with a chance, the game is nice and open etc., but not everyone can win in the end and there comes a stage where resources can only be offered to the most talented

 hence people have to be made aware of their talent and encouraged to keep going through a long process with no promise of rewards (unlike in sponsored)

 the untalented have to be (gently) let down or "cooled out" to leave room for the others (this led to special cooling out agencies in the US like "junior colleges").

Political Implications

Lots of implications for the education system flow from this model as Crosland noticed ... inequalities are functionally inevitable, but one way to overcome some of the dysfunctions is to make society as open and fair as possible - to keep the inequalities but maximise social mobility and equalise opportunity.   We should base access on functional criteria - technical knowledge or merit generally.   So the problem for Crosland is - what sort of education system best meets the requirements of a functional model? Or, to put it in the terms of a mildly reforming government: how best could an education system be designed to accomplish these functionally important tasks?. Or (perhaps even more specifically), what is that makes the US social and occupational system seem so open and dynamic, compared to the British one (Crosland was a great admirer of the USA)?

The contest system was seen as the answer - as better than the existing sponsored system in the UK.  It seemed more rational and efficient since it did not exclude masses of kids before they had a fair chance to develop and show their talents.  It seemed much less unfair too - instead of children's futures being decided by present elites, much more rational and objective criteria that might benefit the whole country in the future could be used to run a proper contest.  Hence the move towards comprehensive schools, which had common resources, no early selection, a chance for children to show their talents over time, more flexible arrangements internally and so on. 

There was another highly desirable possibility too - a sponsored system created lots of social distance between a remote, segregated elite and the rest, but this was expected to be much reduced in "all-in", community environments - so social mixing would produce many unneccessary and outmoded differentials of esteem and prestige in British society (once seen as the "curse of British industry").  Social mixing would also help unambitious but bright working class kids to mix with ambitious middle class ones (and cure the problem of low  ambitions identified in work like the Plowden Report  see file ).

Crosland's policies can be seen, therefore, as developing a contest system (comprehensive schools) and ending sponsorship (tripartite schools) for good sociological reasons. Comprehensive schools lead to contest mobility, it was thought - they prolong the contest rather than making an early selection, and this helps late developers to compete.  It is a fairer contest because it is in the same school,  with the same levels of resources.  Groups mix so there is no deep social separation, equal respect and the reduction of status differences.  Contest systems are seen as fair - and, if they work, more efficient because their end-products have proved their worth against all-comers.

It could be argued that this functionalist analysis is the one that underpins much of British Government policy, at least until Thacherism, and the functionalist approach, and even some of the modifications of it have set the essential terms of the debate ever since (it lies behind the 'communitarian' ideals of much of New Labour, for example).  Arguments between the parties can be seen, often, as really being about improving the efficiency of education as a discoverer, recruiter and trainer of "functionally important talent".  No party offered a radical break with functionalist conceptions - indeed, given the strong affinities between functionalism and liberal democracy (Gouldner 1971), this is hardly surprising.

Contest mobility - the critics

Again lots of criticisms of "contest" are available, e.g, is it a fair contest if kids come in with unequal home backgrounds, (this point led to further reforming policies like the proposals for EPAs in Plowden)?   Are the rules of the contest being rigged anyway - are kids being asked to compete in tasks which already favour dominant cultural groups? (This last point was never really taken up by the politicians,  however) 

Let's note some of Hopper's modifications to Turner (1971).  It is not as simple as choosing sponsored or contest, for Hopper. Contest faces the problem of ambitions - the "regulation of ambition", especially the need in Britain to warm up bright working class kids.  Sponsorship on a personal level is probably better for these kids (and there is some evidence for this in Halsey's survey 1980 see file).  Thus the most effective system is mixed contest and sponsorship (and this is how the education system is seen by Marxists too in a different way - apparently, it is an open contest, but there is crafty sponsorship of middle class kids). 

Schools are not able to regulate ambitions alone, for Hopper - not only are homes important factors, but the nature of the status system itself is relevant - how realistic is it to be ambitious - (it is no good if there is no future, if one is already condemned to be low status, whatever one's qualifications).  There is a strong hope (no more) in Crosland that our occupational system would be flexible, that it would reflect merit alone, with no prejudice against working class entrants, blackpeople or women (on gender, see file ) .  And if societies really are developing along functional or evolutionary lines (a  popular view in the 60s) eventually they will develop open systems - because these are more functional.

The test case: Jencks on inequality in the USA

The social and occupational system  of the USA was simply seen as more open by many of the advocates of contest mobility, as we have seen. Any study which tried to examine the actual state of social mobility in the US would be of particular relevance, then. So this is where the final piece of work comes in - Jencks (1972). Jencks was concerned generally to research inequality in USA, but this work is a useful test of the whole functionalist model, since the USA is (still?) the most functionally developed society, the one least dominated by the old class system (which might be expected to lag on in Europe). Jencks found:

1. There are massive inequalities in the USA - far too large to be defended as simply being functional.  People at the top are over-rewarded, over-motivated.  This is not the result of social developments alone - there must be something else producing large rewards.  Rewards are not obviously linked to "functional importance".

2. There is also a good deal of social mobility in the USA - elites do not perpetuate themselves very much. The wealthy and powerful are not very good at ensuring that their kids enter elite positions.

3. So what does govern access to elite positions?  It should be talent, technical knowledge, if Davis and Moore are right - but talent (as measured by IQ scores and other measures) is not very significant in determining rewards.  There is a large part played by random factors like luck and opportunity. (Bowles and Gintis have reworked much of this data and have concluded that social class not luck explains the pattern better: see file)

4. The USA is the home of the contest model.  We would expect to find a correlation between educational success and economic success if the Crosland vision were coming true.  Educational qualifications are significantly linked to economic success (but remember luck) - but it seems NOT to be because they represent the skills or talents needed for jobs.  It is much less rational than that - employers prefer highly qualified applicants but they don't know why!  It is certainly rare to find employers curious about courses or about jobs.  What you study or what it proves about you is not carefully studied - the length of study seems most important rather than any "skills" you might have acquired.

Concluding Comments

There is now a whole debate on this notion of contest, of course - and in particular on whether just putting people from different backgrounds in the same schools is running a fair and open contest.  Two questions arise:

(a) don't some kids start out with severe handicaps already - from home background etc?

(b) aren't the rules of contest, or the tasks involved in the contest rigged in some way to favour certain  kinds of (white, male) middle class kid?

This latter point assumes particular force in the light of the National Curriculum, of course.  Some old debates in the Sociology of Education, (especially Young's - see Young 1971) cast a good deal of doubt upon the claims of such curricular schemes to be genuinely universal or common - they are far more likely to reflect the values of the "dominant groups" who have constructed them (and thus reward those who already possess those values and skills). 

There is also some doubt about "social mixing". One classic study by J. Ford (1969) found that, try as they might to mix children from different social classes, the comprehensives in her sample failed to do so, and that social class affected achievement levels and friendship choices of the children.It would be very nice to replicate the study today.

Finally, of course, the whole debate operates in the UK with a still separate system of public schools - very much a "sponsored" system alongside a "contest" one.


Bendix R & Lipset S  Class, Status and Power..., 2nd edition,  London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967 
   (articles by Davis & Moore and Tumin)
Crosland, C The Future of Socialism, London, Cape,  1980
Ford, J  Social Class and the Comprehensive School,   London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969
Gouldner, A The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, London, Heinemann, 1971
Hopper E (ed) Readings in the Theory of Educational Systems, London, Hutchinson, 1971
Jencks C  Inequality, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972
Johnson, R "Really Useful Knowledge..." in Dale R et  al (eds) Education and the State Vol 2:  Politics, Patriarchy and Practice,  Barcombe, Falmer Press/Open University Press, 1981
Turner, R  "Sponsored and contest mobility and the school system" in Hopper, E (ed) op.cit.
Young, M (ed) Knowledge and Control..., London,  Collier-Macmillan, 1971 (especially Introduction)