Changes in the Education System and Their Impact on Gender and Class Inequalities

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Social structures are constructed frameworks of institutions within a social group that shape their members’ behaviours and identities. The social context of our lives is not just a series of random events but is patterned in distinct ways and regulates the way we behave and how we develop relationships with one another.

Knowledge of social structures and processes, whether they are economic, political, educational, military or religious, makes us aware of the forces that shape our lives and enable us to resist them or set about changes. The organisations and activities of these structures become the norms for our society.

Every structure of society will have a relationship between that structure and social divisions and inequalities within society. Social divisions are defined as “substantial social differences between two or more categories of people” (Payne, G, 2006, p. 3). Divisions can overlap and interrelate and can consist of material and cultural differences. Since World War II reforms and political strategies have been put in place to attempt to provide more equality in our society but have they succeeded or simply heightened social inequality?

Education is an important issue as it is through education that children learn the common values in their society, religious and moral beliefs and the social rules. It plays an important part in the socialisation of children as well as providing them with skills and knowledge for occupations and the British education system has developed to fill various specialised roles in the workplace economy.

The relationship between education and social inequalities, particularly class and gender, is one of the main sociological issues in Britain today. State educational provision had its origin in the desire of one class to control the attitudes and beliefs of another class, “The habit of obedience to authority, of immediate obedience to commands, may teach the working classes a lesson which many so sadly need.....not the vulgar and pernicious doctrine that one man is as good as another” (Newcastle Commission on Education, 1861).

Reforms in education since 1944 were aimed to provide “equality of opportunity” (Parsons, 1959, cited in Fulcher & Scott, 2006, p.321) irrespective of social divisions, to provide reward for value of achievements, which is central to an industrial society. The education system was to ensure that ability and effort decided one’s place in society, that class or gender would be no barrier to success.

The English state education system is, in historical terms, a recent development. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was no national education system. Nineteenth century education was a mirror of the class structure. Public schools provided education for the upper class, grammar schools for the middle classes. It was considered that an elementary education was all that the working classes required. The Education Act of 1870 expanded the elementary education for the poor through school boards, the new large Board schools providing elementary education which was more concerned with religious and moral issues rather than economic ones. A national system of schooling was slowly introduced between 1870 and 1944 but it was not until the Education Act of 1944 that free secondary education for all was introduced.


The Education Act of 1944 introduced free compulsory education for all between the ages of 5 and 15.This created a tripartite system, grammar schools for the academically gifted, technical schools for those with technical abilities and secondary modern for the rest. Selection for each type of school was made on the basis of an intelligence test (IQ) at 11+ which embodied cultural and linguistic assumptions linked to class and background. Children were allocated school places on the basis of the...
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