ED6 - Roles and Processes in Education

This Section will examine the roles and processes within schools from a sociological perspective, exploring how they impact students' achievement and their overall experience of education. Sociologists have long been interested in the structures and processes of schools and their function in society, as schools are significant agents of socialization and can reproduce or challenge social inequalities. The textbook will discuss the ideal pupil, labelling theory, and groupings in schools, examining how they affect students' achievement and experience in the education system. In addition, the textbook will review several studies in this field, providing insights into methodologies and findings that will be beneficial to students, educators, and policymakers in understanding the workings of schools and developing strategies that promote a more equitable and effective education system. Overall, the study of roles and processes within schools is essential in understanding the complexities of education in modern society and provides a useful framework for further research, policy formulation, and social change.

Labelling is an informal process used by teachers to better understand their students. This process is an unconscious one and not as formal as the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. Instead, it helps teachers shape their teaching to better meet the needs of their class. Although labelling can be helpful, it can also have negative consequences. Sometimes, teachers attach negative labels to students based on their behaviour, appearance, or other factors. This can lead to negative outcomes, including poor academic performance, behavioural issues, and negative educational experiences. A negative label can have significant consequences on a student's self-esteem and sense of belonging. However, there are many factors that influence the labelling process, such as individual personality traits, behaviour, and personal information. It's essential to acknowledge the potential negative effects of labelling in educational settings while recognizing its positive aspects. Teachers should strive to create a positive learning environment for all students, regardless of whether they've been labelled or not. It's crucial to remember that labelling can be both helpful and harmful, and teachers should be aware of the potential consequences of their actions. Overall, it's important to approach labelling with caution and sensitivity, considering both its potential benefits and drawbacks.


Hargreaves (1986) presents a conceptualization of the labelling process as occurring in distinct stages. The initial stage is termed "speculation," whereby certain characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, and reputation may contribute to the formulation of a speculative label. This speculative label is then elaborated upon during in-class interactions, which involve the collection of data and the analysis of linguistic codes. This phase is referred to as "elaboration." As the teacher interacts with the student over time, the label stabilizes, resulting in what Hargreaves (1986) calls "stabilization." This tripartite model, comprising speculation, elaboration, and stabilization, serves as a framework for understanding the formation of a label. Therefore, the label is not simply assigned in one instance, but rather evolves over time through the aforementioned stages.


Becker (1971) outlines the concept of the "ideal pupil" as a construct that teachers hold in their minds regarding the characteristics and behaviours of a model student. This ideal pupil serves as a reference point against which all other students are measured. For instance, in sociology, a teacher may seek students who demonstrate engagement in discussions, curiosity about the world, and an ability to apply their knowledge to the world around them. These criteria form the framework for what the ideal sociology student would look like. The ideal pupil, thus, acts as a guide for teachers when evaluating students and assigning labels. Students who meet the criteria of the ideal pupil are more likely to receive positive labels, whereas those who fall short may receive negative labels. This construct plays a significant role in the labelling process in the classroom, as it guides teachers' expectations and perceptions of their students.

In a study by Hempel-Jorgensen (2009), the notion of the ideal pupil was found to vary not only between individual teachers but also between different types of schools, depending on their social composition. For instance, in a working-class school in Aspen, where discipline was an issue, the ideal pupil was perceived as quiet, passive, and obedient. In contrast, in a middle-class school in Rowan, which had fewer disciplinary problems, the ideal pupil was defined by personality and academic ability rather than behaviour. This demonstrates that the definition of the ideal pupil, which informs the labelling process and determines whether a label is positive or negative, can be different depending on the specific school context.


The first study examined by Ray Rist, an American sociologist, analysed how a teacher used the home backgrounds of kindergarten students to segregate them into different groups. Rist found that the teacher grouped students based on their socio-economic status, creating the "Tigers" group, comprised of neat, middle-class, academically advanced students, the "Cardinals," who were average, and the "Clownfish," who were considered troublesome students from poor, working-class, and deprived backgrounds. Rist's longitudinal study followed these students through their primary and secondary education and revealed that the labels attached to them in their early years of education continued to influence their academic experiences and outcomes. Those labelled as "Clownfish" were viewed as low academic achievers and troublesome even ten years later in high school, while those in the "Tigers" group were pushed into advanced placement courses and excelled within the education system. This study highlights the significant impact that early labelling can have on a student's education and ultimately, their future opportunities.


Rosenthal and Jacobson's study, Pygmalion in the Classroom, was a field experiment in which they gave fake IQ tests to students and randomly selected 20% of them as "bright" students or "bloomers" and another 10% as "less able" students or "non-bloomers". The researchers informed the school of the results and then retested the students a year later to see if the label of being a bloomer or non-bloomer had affected their educational progress. The study found that those identified as bloomers made more progress than other students, while those identified as non-bloomers tended to regress in their testing. However, the study was considered unethical because it negatively impacted the education of some students. The study also found that the data created in-class and in-school groupings based on the labels given to the students. This study has been criticized for its ethical concerns. The researchers used deception by giving fake IQ tests to the students, which might have caused psychological harm to the students who were falsely labelled as less able. Moreover, the researchers randomly selected students and labelled them as "bloomers" or less able, which could have affected the students' self-esteem and academic performance.

Another ethical concern is that the researchers informed the school about the test results, which resulted in the school creating in-class and school groupings based on the labels assigned by the researchers. This categorization could have further stigmatized students who were labelled as less able, leading to a negative impact on their academic and social outcomes.

In School Groupings

The concept of in-school groupings is closely linked to labelling, as it can both result from and create labels. Educational institutions utilize four methods of grouping students, namely, setting, streaming, in-class groupings, and mixed-ability teaching.

Setting: This is a method of grouping students within each subject area based on their ability. Students are assigned to a group based on their performance in that subject, with each group consisting of students who are either top, middle, or bottom performers in the subject. This grouping is usually determined by a test or an assessment that is designed to measure the student's knowledge and skills in that particular subject area. This approach can have both positive and negative consequences, as it allows for appropriately challenging instruction, but it can also perpetuate negative labels.

Streaming: This is a method of grouping students based on their overall academic ability. Students are placed in a group with other students who have similar academic abilities and are taught all subjects within that group at the same level. The groupings are often labelled, such as red, green, or blue band, and students may be required to take certain GCSE subjects depending on the band they are placed in. Streaming, which has largely been phased out due to negative labelling, and leading to blocking of educational opportunities for students in lower streams.

Mixed-ability teaching, which is currently the norm in education, is aimed at providing equal opportunities to all students, regardless of their ability. . This is a method of teaching where students of different abilities and academic backgrounds are placed in the same class and taught together.  However, this approach can be both positive and negative, as it requires teachers to differentiate instruction to cater to the needs of both high- and low-ability

In-class grouping: This is a method of grouping students within a single class based on their academic ability. Teachers may group students together based on their performance in a particular subject or on a specific task or project. The aim is to provide differentiated instruction that meets the needs of each student in the class.

In the study by Keddie, the concept of speculative labelling was applied to in-school groupings. Speculative labelling refers to the practice of labeling students based on expectations or assumptions, rather than on actual evidence of their abilities. This type of labeling can have negative consequences, as it can lead to students being placed in lower streams or sets, which can limit their access to educational opportunities and resources.

Keddie's study found that students who were speculatively labelled as underachieving were often placed in lower sets and streams, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This means that because they were placed in lower sets and streams, they were not given access to the same knowledge and opportunities as their peers in higher sets and streams, which further perpetuated their perceived underachievement. As a result, these students were not given the opportunity to show their full potential, and they may have become discouraged or disengaged from their education.

This study highlights the importance of being aware of the potential negative consequences of in-school grouping practices, such as setting and streaming. While these practices can have some benefits, such as providing appropriate support and challenge for students of different abilities, they can also perpetuate inequality and limit educational opportunities for certain students. Therefore, it is important for educators to consider the potential consequences of in-school grouping practices, and to strive for more equitable and inclusive educational practices that support all students to reach their full potential.


The notion of self-fulfilling prophecy is an important concept in sociology. However, it is essential to recognize that labelling is a process that involves more than just attaching a label to an individual. Hargreaves' concept of speculation, elaboration, and stabilization highlights this process. For instance, a teacher may speculate about a student and create an image in their mind of what that student is like. This image is shaped by the ideal pupil that the teacher has in mind. This label then shapes the teacher's interaction with the student.

The negotiation phase follows this stage, where it is not necessarily the case that being treated in a particular way will lead to a corresponding behaviour. A self-fulfilling prophecy can occur, but it is not a given outcome. The student can accept the label and internalize it, leading to a master status, which they live up to. For example, if a student is labelled as high achieving, they may internalize this label and behave accordingly. However, the negotiation phase can also result in a rejection of the label, leading to the student proving the label wrong.

Margaret Fuller's study on Afro-Caribbean girls in a London school exemplifies this point. These girls rejected negative labels and went on to achieve despite the label. The elaboration phase in Hargreaves' three-step system is referred to as the negotiation phase in the self-fulfilling prophecy process. This phase considers which elements of the label other students will accept or reject and act upon accordingly. Thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy is not guaranteed and depends on how the student reacts to the label.

The labelling process is linked to in-class grouping processes that can lead to a positive or negative experience of the education system. The label can also impact a student's academic performance. It is essential to remember that these labels are not fixed and are constantly negotiated and renegotiated. Giddens' concept of the reflexive self is relevant here. In addition, the ideal pupil, as conceptualized by Becker, varies between teachers and affects how students are grouped in school settings, such as streaming and mixed ability. In conclusion, labelling theory can be linked to education, with speculation, elaboration, and stabilization forming a crucial aspect of this connection.