Consensus Theories – Education

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

What are the consensus theories views on education?

Consensus theories Functionalists, New Right, Postmodernists etc state that education has two major functions:

Secondary Socialisation and helping people gain work. The unified argument of consensus theories is that the education system is meritocratic. This is where the system is considered to be fair, providing equal opportunity.


Durkheim regards the education system as being fundamental in ensuring that individuals are socialised to accept societies norms and values – social solidarity.  He identified four basic features of education:

1) Passing on society’s culture and building social solidarity. 

​Education meets a key functional requisite by spreading norms and values of society through the hidden curriculum and the overt curriculum e.g. Citizenship. 

2) Linking particularistic standards/ values and ascribed status of the family to universalistic standards/ values and achieved status of society.

Durkheim stated that schools act is microcosms of society (smaller versions). Schools are places where secondary socialisation takes place and this paves the way for particularistic standards/ values and the ascribed status of the family and the universalistic standards/ values and the achieved status of society. To explain this point further, a child is treated individually at home. For example, you do not expect a 5 year old to do washing up similar to his 13 year old brother. In society, however, it is based on more universalistic standards where a person’s place in society is based on their achievements. 

3) Developing human capital. 

This was originally created by Schultz (1971) who stipulated that investing in society is key, as it trains people to succeed in the capitalist society we live in. The aim of schools is to assign the correct cultural capital to individuals depending on what the economy needs. This is the way society survives. E.g. If there is a shortage of midwives, individuals will be issued with more cultural capital to ensure these positions are filled. This is called the division of labour. 

4) Selecting and allocating people for their jobs based on grading. 

This leads on from and is directly linked to the previous one whereby the process of this categorisation is based on how students are assessed. The higher grades students have, the better they succeed and are prepared for society. Davis and Moore (1967) suggest that this educational race for success is accessible for all (meritocracy). 

Parsons added to this stating schools acted as a bridge between home and society. He devised two standards that occurred in school.

1) Particularistic standards – where children are treated as individuals e.g. careers advice.

2) Universalistic standards  – Following a mark scheme to mark student’s work

The balance of these two standards are dependent on the economy and what it needs.

Davis and Moore give rise to another key term called role allocation which is where education prepares people for their future roles.

New Right

The New Right shares many similarities with Functionalism so far as it states that school’s purpose isn’t to ensure a meritocracy, but to support society through the division of labour. Education should socialise young people into collective alues and responsible citizens. The New Right argues that education should be run like a business enabling parents to have choice in their student’s school. They argue that the current education system is unfair and not meritocratic and by introducing businesses into the system, students will have greater opportunities within society.

The New Right’s views are mostly reflected in the Conservative Governments and most right wing parties. Chubb and Moe (1990) argue that the introduction of market forces into education, known as marketisation, is beneficial to the education system as it helps improve standards and efficiency. They insisted that an increase in choice (think about the various school types that exist today) for students in their education would result in more success. 

Criticisms of consensus theory perspectives.

Consensus theories  are criticised for their idealistic perspectives. The fact is that particular groups of students (explored later in more depth, but as an example working class etc) achieve much lower results than the average. 

Consensus theories also fail to recognise individual negative experiences and instead assumes that the education system benefits all.

When choice is introduced, not all students are able to utilise this choice. E.g. they may not have the money to travel to good schools, as they are poor. 


The New Right.

The New Right shares many similarities in terms of values as the Functionalists. The New Right believes that equal opportunity should not be enforced as the more able students should by right have better jobs. In order to avoid conflict, subjects such as citizenship promotes social solidarity and this makes education of upmost importance. New Right thinkers such as Chubb and Moe (1990) believes that education which is controlled by the government and is not privatised is not effective as it does not meet the needs of parents or students as everyone is different. They state that there should be a choice, a free market and all are independently managed schools, run like businesses and that reflect the views of the local community. This process is called marketisation (which will be explored in greater depth later on in the course). The New Right, therefore, see education as a positive force (providing it is privatised).

The New Right introduced the 1988 Education Reform Act and believe in Marketisation and Parentocracy within the framework of a National Curriculum and with teaching and learning monitored by OFSTED. 

Underlying principles of the New Right

They believe the state (government) cannot meet people’s needs.

The most efficient way to meet people’s needs is through the free market – through private businesses competing with each other.

Economic growth is an important overall goal – to be achieved by allowing individuals the freedom to compete with each other.

Key ideas of The New Right on Education-

The New Right created an ‘education market’ – Schools were run like businesses – competing with each other for pupils and parents were given the choice over which school they send their children to rather than being limited to the local school in their catchment area. This lead to the establishment of league tables

Schools should teach subjects that prepare pupils for work, Hence education should be aimed at supporting economic growth. Hence: New Vocationalism!

The state was to provide a framework in order to ensure that schools were all teaching the same thing and transmitting the same shared values – hence the National Curriculum

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