Ideally, we would like to believe that we live in a society in which education provides an opportunity for every individual to develop one’s own talent and capacity. Education has also been seen as a means of equalization among all, because it has been argued that universal education for all would be an ideal environment where children could bypass factors such as race, gender and social class standing. In all actuality, the latter is merely a pipedream. In this paper I will argue that it is in fact education itself, which is a product of past elite education, that becomes a means for the reproduction of society’s inequalities and a method of social control, specifically ones own social class. The consequences are undeniable: education is liable for the reinforcing acceptance of class structure far more than it takes action to change them.
To put the current educational system into perspective, one should look to the past for clarifications and answers. Sociologists have argued that the foundations of the UK education system in the nineteenth century are products of class issues and desire for control. Andy Green in his survey of the rise of the educational system in England, France and the United States, actually singles out England as the most overt example of using schooling to secure authority and power over inferior classes.
He argues that the increasing middle-class dedication to working-class education in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, “was different in every conceivable way from their ideals in middle-class education. . . it was rather a way in ensuring that the subordinate class would acquiesce in their own class aspirations. Historically, public schools came very early for the privileged, but for the working class, the quite limited Sunday schools were the only opportunity available for an education. The Sunday schools offered an often moral education, rather than academic education, due to the underlying fears of the elite. They believed that if the working class was provided the same education as they were accustomed to, they (working class) would experience a rise in social and class standing.
Education systems would inevitably undergo many changes throughout the century, but the underlying fear of a working class becoming more powerful in society was never forgotten. Nearing the turn of the century, public education rose to a new level of importance, consequently at the same time capitalists were in search of literate and efficient workers. In the wake of this desire for an educated working class, many countries instigated mandatory education laws that focused on imposing the importance of compliance, punctuality and discipline, all of which would be what sociologists refer to as the ‘hidden curriculum’. Samuel Bowels and Herbert Gintis argue that it starts to influence at the youngest level, “to know their place and sit still in it” and “reproduces inequality by justifying privilege and attributing poverty to personal failure”.
While social divisions in education emerged in the nineteenth century, their stigma still holds true today. Studies performed in various countries express that social class and family background are key authorities over school performance and therefore are revealed in ensuing levels of income. Conventional social distinctions refuse to go away in education in Great Britain. Middle and upper class families have greater resources available, which then allow them to send their children to public schools. These schools are considered very elite and not only teach academic subjects, but they also portray to these children of wealthy families, “the distinctive patterns of speech, mannerisms and social graces of the British upper class”. These schools are just too much of a financial impossibility for most students. In addition, poorer families cannot afford the amenities customary to their wealthier counterparts. This includes sending their children to nursery pre-school training and later to “cram schools, to hire private tutors, or to purchase items such as books or personal computers, which give children from more affluent backgrounds an advantage”.
Another reason why education reproduces class structure is in part the result of the environment children of the working class are living in. They are often subject to surroundings where people don’t anticipate climbing the social latter in terms of social class and in fact, act out against the system rather than try to comply with it. In an environment such as the latter, adults will tend to discourage success at school, rather than encourage it.
It is also argued that schools customarily adapt education according to each student’s class background, which in turn maintains social inequality in society. Study after study show that there exists an undeniable difference in performance levels of children at school from different class standings. The most notable difference being that children from working-class backgrounds, when compared to middle-class and upper-class children, routinely underachieve at every level of the educational system. Table 1 shows the difference in performance levels of students at school with various class backgrounds.