School Subcultures

Why do working-class children get working-class jobs?

School Subcultures School Subcultures

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Table of contents

    Sociologists such as Paul Willis (1977) assert that working-class boys adopt anti-school behaviour because they view education as worthless for the working-class jobs that they are destined to work in.

    • We will look at school subcultures, where they come from, and what some examples of them are.
    • We will explore pro-school subcultures, anti-school subcultures, and the subcultures in between.
    • We will discuss the different sociological research studies done on anti-school subcultures.
    • Finally, we will look at how education policies affect school subcultures.

    School subculture definition

    Let's first go over the concept of school subcultures.

    School subcultures are smaller groups of students who share attitudes to the rules, values, and norms of school and form their behaviour accordingly. School subcultures are often based on gender, ethnicity, and social class.

    The majority of sociological research has focused on working-class subcultures, male subcultures, and ethnic minority subcultures in schools.

    Where do school subcultures come from?

    There is a range of sociological explanations for the formation of school subcultures. Some sociologists believe that it is exclusively internal factors that influence school subculture formation, while others hold external factors responsible as well. Tony Sewell, who researched Black pupil subcultures, argues that students who belong to anti-school subcultures got their anti-school attitudes from outside the educational institution.

    Paul Lacey (1970) argues that it is primarily internal causes that lie behind school subcultures. He claims that pupils get sorted into two polarised (opposing) groups through differentiation by the teachers. One group consists of students who achieve highly, and the other consists of the low achiever students. According to Lacey, the students in the high-achieving team will be supportive of the school’s norms and rules and will possibly belong to pro-school subcultures. The pupils of the low-achieving sets will likely join anti-school subcultures and will rebel against the school structure.

    Hargreaves (1967, 1976), Ball (1981), and Abraham (1989) also find that differentiation and polarisation affect pupils’ behaviour within, and attitudes towards, school.

    Sociologists such as Paul Willis (1977) assert that working-class boys adopt anti-school behaviour because they view education as worthless for the working-class jobs that they are destined to work in.

    Examples of subcultures in schools

    Let's take a look at pro-school, anti-school, and in-between subcultures.

    Pro-school subcultures

    Pro-school subcultures are comprised of groups of students who accept and conform to the ethos, rules, and values of the school. Pupils within pro-school subcultures see academic achievement as success, and they work hard and cooperate with the teachers to achieve their academic goals.

    Pro-school subcultures often consist of middle-class pupils; however, there are exceptions. Máirtín Mac an Ghaill (1994) conducted a participant observation study and found two different types of pro-school subcultures among working-class kids:

    • The Academic Achievers: Students of working-class backgrounds, who focus on traditional academic subjects such as mathematics, English, and the sciences to gain academic success.

    • The New Enterprisers: Students of working-class backgrounds, who deny the usefulness of traditional academic subjects but aspire to do well in the alternative, more ‘practical’ subjects, such as business and computing.

    Abrahams (1988) and Mirza (1992) also show a few examples of pro-school female subcultures. They suggest that girls in these groups support and encourage each other to study more and prepare better for tests.

    School Subcultures, Students sitting with notebooks and laptop studying, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Pro-school subcultures value academic achievement and strive for it.

    Anti-school subcultures (or "counter-school subcultures")

    British Marxist sociologist, Paul Willis, was the first to identify a counter-school subculture in his research on 12 working-class students who called themselves ‘the Lads’.

    An anti-school subculture, or counter-school subculture as it is often called, consists of students who don’t agree with the values, norms, rules, and ethos of the school. They often develop negative attitudes towards teachers, and they display rebellious and disruptive behaviour. They usually don’t see academic achievement as a success.

    Willis’s study: Learning to Labour (1977)

    Willis examined 12 working-class pupils in their last year of school followed by their first few months of work, through participant observation and interviews. His aim was to find out "why working-class children get working-class jobs".

    School Subcultures, Factory workers working, StudySmarter Fig. 2 - Willis tried to find out why 'working-class children got working-class jobs'.

    He differentiated between two school subcultures: the Lads, who rebelled against the school, and the Ear’oles, who conformed to the school ethos.

    The Lads were working-class boys, who saw academic education as pointless for the factory labour that they will end up doing. ‘Having a laff’ was much more important than gaining academic qualifications because it will help in dealing with the stress of their line of work. Manual labour was superior to mental in their eyes, and they viewed the Ear’oles as inferior to them as they wasted their time studying instead of having fun.

    The boys in this group drank and smoked, which they considered a step into adulthood. They also displayed sexist behaviour. Willis claims that the Lads seemed to have accepted that they were going to work in low-skilled and low-paid jobs, and behaved in a way that prepared them for the lifestyle that these kinds of jobs offered.

    Mac an Ghaill’s study of Parnell School (1994)

    Mac an Ghaill found the same subculture among working-class students as Willis: The Macho Lads. He claims that working-class boys harbour more traditional masculinity and anti-school attitudes from home, and they are under more pressure to act accordingly in school. Middle-class boys appeared to be keener to express their masculinity through academic competition and academic achievement.

    Mac an Ghaill also points out that there are in fact pro-school subcultures among the working class, such as the Academic Achievers and the New Enterprisers (mentioned earlier).

    Anti-school Black Subculture:

    Tony Sewell (1997) observes that Black Caribbean boys experience a lot of pressure from their friends to adapt to the ‘street’ subculture. Fordham and Ogbu (1986) also found that ‘acting Black’ was set in opposition to ‘acting White’ and since acting White also included trying to achieve academic success, acting Black seemed to include not doing well in education.

    Mac an Ghaill (1998) studied three subcultures: the Asian Warriors, the African-Caribbean Rasta Heads, and the Black Sisters. He found that the African-Caribbean students were subjected to institutional racism, to which they reacted with anti-school attitudes and behaviour.

    Impacts of anti-school behaviour:

    Anti-school attitudes and conduct usually lead to academic underachievement and often to detention or other kinds of disciplinary action from the teachers and the school. As a result, the students end up finishing school with low grades and no qualifications, so they are forced to work in unskilled jobs.

    Carolyn Jackson (2006) found that anti-school behaviour could be seriously beneficial for the students, as it made them appear cool and gain popularity. She also claims that laddish behaviour was due to fear of failure. If lads regard educational achievement as unimportant, it was less embarrassing when they did not do well or failed. They put no effort into studying, so if they do achieve good results they appear very smart and thus cool, which leads to popularity again.

    Between pro- and anti-school subcultures

    Peter Woods (1979) found the pro-and anti-school subculture division too simplistic. Instead of this categorisation, he looks at a great variety of student reactions to school and discovers how students change their attitudes and behaviour as they go along their educational path.

    Woods defines eight ways that students adapt to school:

    • Ingratiation: students who have pro-school attitudes and who are eager to please teachers.

    • Compliance: students who are rather neutral to school. They see it as useful, but they are neither overly positive nor overly negative about it. Usually, first-year students fall into this category.

    • Opportunism: students who in one moment try to please the teachers and in the next try to win popularity among their classmates.

    • Ritualism: students who attend school without fault, but who are not overly enthusiastic about it.

    • Retreatism: students who do not seek academic success and are caught daydreaming sometimes instead of paying attention, but who do not aim to challenge the school authorities.

    • Colonisation: students who are hostile toward school, but who still try to avoid trouble.

    • Intransigence: troublemaker students, who do not want to conform to the school ethos.

    • Rebellion: students who aim to cause disruption in the school.

    Policy that Affects Subcultures in Schools

    Education policy has had serious impact on the educational achievement of pupils and on school subcultures. British sociologists of education are particularly concerned with the impact of selection, marketisation, privatisation, and globalisation policy.

    We will mention the example of the Education Reform Act (1988), which introduced the national curriculum, league tables, and standardised testing. Some sociologists argue that it contributed to the separation of students, who then adopted different attitudes toward school and joined different subcultures based on how they were perceived and 'labelled' by the new standards.

    You can read about this in more detail in our explanation on Educational Policies.

    School Subcultures - Key takeaways

    • School subcultures are smaller groups of students who share attitudes to the rules, values, and norms of school and form their behaviour accordingly.
    • There is a range of sociological explanations for the formation of school subcultures. Some sociologists believe that it is exclusively internal factors that influence school subculture formation, while others hold external factors responsible as well.
    • Pro-school subcultures are the groups of students who accept and conform to the ethos, rules, and values of the school. Pupils of pro-school subcultures see academic achievement as success, and they work hard and cooperate with the teachers to achieve their academic goals.
    • An anti-school subculture, or counter-school subculture, as it is often called, consists of students who don’t agree with the values, norms, rules, and ethos of the school. They often develop negative attitudes towards teachers, and they adopt rebellious and disruptive behaviour. They usually don’t see academic achievement as a success.
    • Peter Woods (1979) finds the pro-and anti-school subculture division too simplistic. Instead of this categorisation, he looks at a great variety of student reactions to school and discovers how students changed their attitudes and behaviour as they go along their educational path.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about School Subcultures

    What are some subcultures in high school?

    School subcultures are often based on gender, ethnicity, and social class. Sociologists differentiate between pro-school, anti-school and in-between subcultures.

    Why do different subcultures exist in schools?

    There is a range of sociological explanations for the formation of school subcultures. Some sociologists believe that it is exclusively internal factors that influence school subculture formation, while others hold external factors responsible as well. 

    What are subcultures in school?

    School subcultures are smaller groups of students who share attitudes to the rules, values, and norms of school and form their behaviour accordingly. School subcultures are often based on gender, ethnicity, and social class. 

    How does labelling cause anti-school subcultures?

    Paul Lacey (1970) argues that it is primarily internal causes that lie behind school subcultures. He claims that pupils get sorted into two polarized (opposing) groups through differentiation by the teachers. One group consists of students who achieve highly, and the other consists of the low achiever students. According to Lacey, the students in the high-achieving team will be supportive of the school’s norms and rules and will possibly belong to pro-school subcultures. The pupils of the low-achieving sets will likely join anti-school subcultures and will rebel against the school structure.

    Are pupils' subcultures causes of failures in schools?

    Not necessarily. Pupils in pro-school subcultures often value academic achievement and strive for it. 

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