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Example Answer for Question 4 Paper 1: A Level Sociology, June 2017 (AQA)


Last updated 9 Jun 2017

Section A – Education: Q4 [30 marks]

Values are beliefs about what is morally right or wrong. Structuralist sociologists presume that sets of ideas and values combine to form ideologies, i.e. dominant belief systems. These are reinforced by social institutions, such as schools, to direct our behaviour. The item suggests that there is disagreement amongst conflict and consensus structuralists as to whose values are dominant. Not only this, but the more recent sociological perspectives of interactionism and postmodernism reject the notion of one dominant and consensual set of values being upheld by our increasingly complex education system.

Emile Durkheim’s functionalist theory argues that social solidarity and cultural cohesion are dependent on socialising members of society into a shared set of values, known as value consensus. It is for this reason, for instance, that American school children pledge allegiance to their flag every morning, to unite a diverse population of tomorrow’s adults under one set of values. Without this essential role of education, other functions of schooling become less effective. The Marxist Louis Althusser acknowledged the power of the education system to socialise values when he referred to schools as ideological state apparatus. Yet he dismissed the argument that this was a positive function for society, pointing out that these supposedly shared values were transmitted through coercion rather than choice, and reflected only those values which benefitted the ruling class.

In agreement with Durkheim, Parsons argued that secondary socialisation is one of education’s key functions, alongside meritocratic role allocation. Schools transmit ideas and values through the hidden curriculum.  In various ways, schools do not just teach the formal curriculum but also transmit ideas about discipline, conformity, manners, attitudes, etc. through their policies, procedures, rules and through aspects of the formal curriculum.  In this way pupils move on from the particularistic values that they learn through primary socialisation in the family and acquire the universalistic values of wider society. 

However, Marxists argue that these ideas and values are not universalistic values that benefit the whole of society, but instead they are ones that benefit the bourgeoisie – the ruling class, to serve the interests of capitalism.  Bowles and Gintis argued that schools do this through what they call the correspondence principle.  School deliberately echoes aspects of work.  There are bells, uniforms, rewards and punishments.  Of course functionalists also recognise that school prepares people for work, but they see this is a positive function.  Marxists see it as preparing the children of the proletariat for a life of exploitation and drudgery, with ideas such as blaming themselves for failure, rather than the system which is stacked against them. 

However, not all Marxists agree about how directly these ideas are transmitted.  Paul Willis argued that rather than working-class pupils learning to conform, instead they saw the education system for what it was, and inverted its values by prioritising “having a laff”. In his famous study “Learning to Labour” Willis found that “the Lads” formed an anti-school subculture in which they rejected the norms and values of the school. In answer to the question, the education system may seek to transmit ideas and values, but students are not all passive recipients of these messages. Willis’s research was based on a small unrepresentative sample of twelve, and his own theoretical values may have influenced his interpretation of events.

Furthermore, as mentioned in Item B, feminists argue that the ideas and values that schools transmit are those that sustain patriarchy. While many point to the fact that education in the UK does not seem to discriminate against girls, in as much as girls now tend to outperform boys in terms of educational achievement.  However, feminists would still identify subtle ways in which schools still promote patriarchal control and traditional gender roles.  They would point to gender differences in subject choice, although governments have gone some way to encourage girls to take science and maths subjects. A radical feminist argument is that the illusion of meritocracy in education can lead to a false consciousness among women that if they end up in less well-paid jobs than men it is a fair outcome.  However, Sue Sharpe conducted a study which showed that girls today were much more likely to focus on educational achievement and career progression rather than home and family (which was the focus of their mothers and grandmothers).

Marxist and feminists would also point out that there are a small minority of schools that might present a different set of values and ideas from the majority.  For example, large public schools like Eton or Westminster transmit a set of values for the next generation of the ruling class; rather than transmitting values and ideas to encourage pupils to turn into docile and obedient workers or wives, these schools transmit the values and ideas that they are entitled to their privilege and to hold dominant positions in society. 

In recent years government policies have also concentrated on the transmission of ideas and values.  For example, schools today have to promote British values to their pupils. Although this was introduced alongside the Prevent Duty to tackle extremism, this reflects the functionalist view that one role of education is transmit shared values to promote social solidarity and collective consciousness. However, most educational policy is focused on raising standards, improving equality of access and opportunity or providing the economy with skilled workers.

While macro sociologists broadly agree that a key role of the education system is to transmit ideas and values, even though they disagree about how they do it and in whose interests, micro sociologists take a very different view. Late modernist, Anthony Giddens, identifies that the modern education system in the UK is very diverse (reflecting a diverse and complex society).  Therefore, if schools do transmit ideas and values to their pupils, it is not to transmit a set of universalistic shared values. For example, there are a wide range of faith schools, all of which transmit the particular ideas and values of their faith.  Furthermore, part of the rationale behind academies and free schools is that school boards and head teachers can establish schools based on their own values; values that might well differ from those that are prevalent in their local education authority.  In this sense there is some apparent conflict between education policies that promote diversity and independence and those that emphasise shared values.

In conclusion, most sociologists agree that a significant role of the education system is to transmit ideas and values, however that is where any agreement ends.  They do not agree on whether the ideas and values transmitted are for the benefit of the whole of society or just for the benefit of the powerful groups.  They do not agree on whether the education system transmits one shared set of values or different ideas for the powerful and powerless.  They do not agree whether there is broad consensus in society, significant conflict in society or indeed whether society is diverse and fragmented, or on how directly individuals interpret these messages.  In today’s society it is clear that the UK education system makes formal and informal attempts to transmit some shared values, while at the same time seeking to promote diversity and choice.
[~1150 words]

Please Note: These answers have been produced without the knowledge of the mark scheme and merely reflect my attempt at producing a model answer on the day of the exam.

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