The Hidden Curriculum: AS Sociology


Aim: Hidden Curriculum: understanding the place of conflict and consensus perspectives over and above simple description.



To start [asking the class]:

Think about what a Hidden Curriculum in schools might be, starting to think sociologically?

A clue - it is connected with learning about socialisation and about the functionalist perspective, and especially learning about ideology in the Marxist perspective.


In school we are taught subjects. That's interesting in itself - but we are told much else besides in school.
What are these extras? They are about socialising us into norms, values and beliefs; or getting us to absorb the ideology of wider capitalist society. Here is a reminder:

  • Norm: an expectation of social behaviour regarded as normal
  • Value: a social ideal that we regard as being of quality
  • Belief: something held in the mind regarded as being true for now
  • Ideology: the thinking direction of a whole group or society
Quickly discuss what specific extras are taught in school, and how these expectations relate to training us to behave in the wider world.
There is a further challenge about the hidden curriculum: what about within subjects? What hidden curriculum elements relating to norms, values, beliefs and ideology in wider society can be identified in such subjects as RE, English, Economics, Business Studies?


Here are some examples of all important extras:

  • We learn by being motivated through external rewards (results) and thus learn to respond to external rewards in capitalism (see Bowles and Gintis, 1976).
  • Teachers have authority over us, and we learn subservience to the authority of others (see Bowles and Gintis, 1976).
  • Students learn about being good representatives of the school; we learn loyalty to employers
  • Students do learn how to handle money, essential to survive.
  • Students learn that some do well and some fail, which is a model for a competitive society.
  • Students learn that they cannot cheat in exams or will be punished, as cheats in wider society are supposed to be punished.
  • Students learn not to use discriminatory language, which goes against valuing others and meritocracy.
  • Students learn about being valued individuals; our society is individualist.
  • Students are offered choices; ours is a consumer society of limited market opportunities.
  • Sixth formers follow an expectation to be more mature, as one of the transitions from school, towards a more accountable adult form of behaviour.
  • We are severely punished for using violence, because violence is not only painful to others but because, unless organised by the State, violence is unproductive in a structured society.
Learning via subjects (incidentally, knowledge is divided into subjects specialisms because in capitalism we specialise in work - called the division of labour - see again Bowles and Gintis, 1976):

  • Overtly the government has introduced subjects like Citizenship in order to promote social inclusion and to improve interest in politics.
  • Schools teach RE for cultural values, moral outcomes and good citizenship.; an emphaisis on Christianity includes the notion of historical continuity.
  • Schools teach Economics and Business Studies to pass on an ideology of capitalism.
  • PE represents people being fit, and energetic for being capable to work.
  • In English an emphasis on Shakespeare suggests a "belonging to England" nationalist citizenship agenda.
  • History has a large focus on Britain and Europe to show how cultural values evolved and suggest the importance of monarchy, country and national obedience down the ages.
There is a theme here - citizenship, continuity and involvement, knowing about hierarchy and the workings of the economy. It means belonging, functioning and being of more productive use. And in general it means individuals are part of the whole.
At this point sociological imagination is needed: to upgrade the sociology and do more with these norms, values, beliefs and ideology.
Describe how norms, values and beliefs developed in people make the functionalist system work.

How does ideology work within a Marxist understanding of ruling class dominated economy and society?


Norms, values and beliefs represent positive integration, binding people and their behaviours into a functionalist system. [Optimistic view]

Ideology represents false consciousness so that you accept ideas of capitalism fundamentally opposed to your true interests as a worker. [Pessimistic, even cynical, view]
Thus we can understand the full impact of the hidden curriculum.

Sociological thinking must go to a higher level because sociology analyses, and considers, not just us as individuals in society, but how society comes into us as individuals.

Think about this: it is how (functionalist or Marxist) society organises itself so that its parts serve it - how it comes into us. It is about society functioning, or social power being effective (consensus or conflict).

Bowles and Gintis (1976) say that education serves the reproduction of labour power for the economy - a correspondence between the relationships in the school and the relationships at the workplace.
Visual learners can summarise all this in a diagram or two. Simple diagrams might help you see the whole picture. I suggest using simple designs showing home, school, workplaces, perhaps society as a whole, and individuals, and arrows showing the hidden curriculum socialising people, as directed by the needs of social structure.


The above shows progression from home and through the all-important school phase into the worlds of work.

Notice how the hidden curriculum is just one part of society arranging and operating its parts.

Remember, to summarise, there is either:

Conflict analysis: a class system that determines an economic structure which pumps out an ideology to cause us to think like it wants - education and the hidden curriculum is part of that ideology.


Consensus approach: a functionalist system that looks after its parts, so that each part works to the best for the system: therefore the educational system generates a hidden curriculum of norms, values and beliefs as part of its work towards the whole system.
There is some criticism of the hidden curriculum correspondence view of Bowles and Gintis (1976)

  • Capitalism and education have distinctive features
  • Capitalism has become more teamwork based unlike school and its exams
  • Many pupils are not subservient to school rules never mind capitalist rules
  • Much in the formal curriculum and school ethos does not mirror capitalism
  • There is no clear causal relationship between capitalism and education

Paul Willis (1977) analyses unintended consequences of education. Using Marxism and interactionism, he shows how particularly some male pupils resist the values of school by doing as little work as possible and even skipping lessons, creating a counter-culture that became the same lack of respect in the workplace.
Here could be a written essay task:

Describe how "classroom matters" (Hargreaves, 1984) relate to wider society from both functionalist and Marxist perspectives.



Bowles, S. Gintis, H. (1976), Schooling in Capitalist America, London:Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Gatto, John Taylor (1992), Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Philadelphia : New Society Publishers.

Haralambos, M., Holborn. M (2004), Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, sixth edition, London: HarperCollins.

Hargreaves, A., Woods, P. (1984), Classrooms & Staffrooms: The Sociology of Teachers & Teaching, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Jackson, P. W. (1968), Life in classrooms, New York, London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Willis, P. (1977), Learning to Labour, Farnborough: Saxon House.



Adrian Worsfold