Conflict Theories – Education

Lesson objectiveTo explore what conflict theories believe
Lesson outcomes• Compare consensus theories
• Evaluate them
• Explain what conflict theories believe

What are the conflict theories views on education?

Conflict theories, obviously, disagree with Consensus theories and regard education and being negative.


Education acts as a means of socialisation reinforcing students into their class position and control. The current system supports capitalism ensuring that working-class students focus on more labour related careers whilst middle-class students set their expectations on university. Naturally, this means that Marxists regard education as not being meritocratic. Each generation learns their place in society from their parents thus limiting social mobility.

Bourdieu (1977)

Bourdieu (1977), developed the idea that education favours middle class more than working. He claims that the middle class possess cultural capital (culture that aids them in attaining material rewards later on in life). Those students who acquire more cultural capital achieve higher positions in society. He also argues that the middle class controls the education system and, therefore, working-class students have middle-class knowledge imposed on them, which places them at a disadvantage. The set of cultural capital students want to learn depends on their social class as each social class considers different cultures as more important to succeed than others and this was called a habitus. E.g. to be a builder you require little cultural capital and so leaving school earlier is more acceptable. Success in school’s, therefore, depend on the acquisition of cultural capital, not how smart we are making it difficult for working-class students to become socially mobile. 

Althusser (1971)

Althusser (1971) claims that capitalism survives because it controls the people in it from within. The process of ensuring an obedient workforce stems from two aspects:

1) The reproduction of the necessary technical skills,

2) The reproduction of ruling class ideology and the socialisation of workers into accepting this dominant ideology (known as False consciousness). 

Institutions such as education reinforce inequalities subconsciously through conveying the ruling class ideology. This is called ideological state apparatus (ISA). The middle class seeks to persuade all students to accept and adopt capitalist values. The main source of developing an ISA is the education system which has two functions:

1) Passes on ruling class ideology thus securing the current capitalist system.

2) Categorises students into their retrospective social class thus the dream of social mobility is just that…. a dream…

Illich and Freire 

Illich (1995) emphasised that education aims to ensure students conform and are obedient. Therefore, schools are repressive institutions and ensure this obedience occurs through the hidden curriculum. This control is achieved through ensuring those students who succeed and obey have a better level of education (being sent to a private school where there are fewer behavioural issues). Students who don’t conform are punished by the education system (through teachers) who end up being allocated into lower-paid jobs. He calls this deschooling. 

Freire (1996) supports Illich in identifying schools are repressive. He further adds that students are controlled through ensuring they know teachers are the ones with the knowledge to succeed in life and therefore, by not listening to the teachers, they will not succeed in life. Freire, Illich and Althusser maintain that education creates a hegemonic system. 

Bowles and Gintis (1976) – See below for more depth. 

Bowles and Gintis (1976) coined the term hidden curriculum whereby norms and values taught at school (non-subject related). Marxists refer to this as a suppressing agent aimed at categorising students. However, Functionalists might see this as important so as to be accepted by society. 

Bowles and Gintis (1976) also came up with the term correspondence principle, which identified the similarities between work and education, and argues that the function of education is to prepare students for work

They argue that a workforce is produced in two main ways. 

1) The hidden curriculum and the correspondence principle linking it to their efforts in promoting the ‘long shadow of work’ (mentioned below). 

2) Promoting inequality in the education system ensuring that when this happens in real life, it is more acceptable. 

Schooling and the ‘long shadow of work’.

Bowles and Gintis iterate that the world of work massively impacts the world of school and education. This influence is called the ‘long shadow of work’. 

The legitimation of inequality. 

3 further products result in the current education system:

1) It legitimises social inequality that occurs in society. 

2) Number 1) forces people to accept their places in society.

3) This helps to reduce discontent and ensure people are happy. 

Bowles and Gintis directly target the Functionalists view that marketisation creates equal opportunity for all and social class is natural. They argue that other factors such as class, gender etc are not taken into account. Therefore meritocracy and equal opportunity are myths that do not exist as evidenced by the success of white British over other ethnic minorities in education as well as the workplace. 


1) The Marxist theorists have been criticised for a lack of evidence and that their beliefs are negatively circumstantial. For example, by stating all students are passive in education’s influence. Some students are active in their educational process. 

2) Marxism ignores the impact that the formal curriculum has on students. New specifications are promoting higher-order thinking (where students have required to evaluate and analysis more), therefore it leads them to question the system more. 

3) Marxists are regarded as being deterministic in the sense that students have no ability to control their education, which isn’t’ always true and doesn’t explain how social mobility occurs. 


Despite girls now mostly outperforming boys in high schools and colleges, there is still an argument that this still leads to girls moving into lower-paid jobs through a dominant patriarchal ideology. The main argument surrounds gendered subject choice. This is where girls, despite given the choice, are prone to choosing female related subjects. This affects both genders. This is the result of gendered socialisation both at school and at home. This is explored more under the “gender and education page”.

Criticisms of the conflict theory. 

Naturally, consensus theories disagree with the conflict perspective as they argue that the system is meritocratic. 

Feminists are criticised for underestimating how well girls are doing and thus the benefit. E.g. women in their early 20’s are now earning more than men. The Feminist perspective also is considered bias and focuses on women more than women.

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