Education system a "ladder of opportunity" or does it simply reflect, reinforce and reproduce existing class differences?
The education system in Britain currently exists as a hierarchical system enabling class differences to continue to persist despite some policy changes that would help facilitate a more equitable program for all involved. Is the educational system a ladder of opportunity? A ladder of opportunity should be considered something that facilitates achievement for all individuals irrespective of their race, national origin or social class. Many consider the educational system a "ladder of opportunity" because education can facilitate achievement and professional growth and wealth for those that pursue it to its highest levels. However, within the UK the education system is not equitably accessible to all levels of the population, and because of this the system actually reinforces and perpetuates existing class differences that already exist within the country.
Within the UK the educational system particularly higher education caters to the upper echelon of society, those individuals who are able to afford a higher education. Because members of high society are able to acquire higher education, they are also afforded better opportunities, better jobs and more wealth throughout their life. It is this cycle that the educational system currently provides for.
There is a large body of evidence available in the literature that supports the supposition that education within Britain is not a ladder of opportunity but rather a hierarchical establishment. Research supporting this is discussed below.
Paterson (2001) discusses the relationship between social class inequality and education in the UK, noting that the subject of social class and education have persisted as a hot topic among politicians and academians since the late 1990s. Further Paterson acknowledges that class distinctions currently influence an individual's likelihood of receiving a quality education and subsequent opportunities within British society.
Paterson suggests that the government with Britain claims that social inequalities with regard to access to education act as "an affront to the principles of social justice" and suggest that all members of society should be able to secure access to education that is "suitable to their needs and aspirations" (Paterson, 2001). He also notes however that working class citizens may not be perceived as having the same needs and aspirations of other members of society, and this is where the opportunity for inequalities lies and the cycle of inequality continues.
Social circumstances have been consistently identified that act as barriers to individuals ability to acquire a higher education within the UK (Paterson, 2001). There is a marked difference in the rate of progression to higher education between varying social groups within the UK as noted by the Labour Party's English education manifesto in 2001 (Paterson, 2001). Specifically, the following was noted: "three quarters of the children of professional parents go to university but barely one in six children of parents of manual occupations do so" (Labour Party, 2001, p. 25; from Paterson, 2001).
Morley (1997) notes that the educational system is currently set up within the United Kingdom under the "guise of a politically neutral system," however in reality the system represents a range of values which at best "confirm and reinforce the established social order of wealth and privileges" (p. 234). His comments suggest that the system is not neutral at all but represents the best interests of those in society that are already enjoying wealth and privilege. The system thus reinforces the ideals of social class inequality rather than equality.
Many researchers have in fact criticized the role the market economy has on education, and suggests that economic factors unduly influence and perpetuate inequalities that are necessary side effects of a market system (Hayton & Leathwood, 2002).
Marginson (1994) comments that any type of market exchange will lead to inequality, thus inequality is a necessary condition of an educational market (p. 4). Education should not be considered a commodity or a market if it is to succeed at providing opportunity to one and all alike. Rather it should be seen as a not for profit establishment with the intent of providing equitable opportunities for all involved rather than an elite few.
Hayton & Leathwood (2002) further lament the current state of affairs…