ED7 - Subcultures and Pupil Identities 


In this section, we will delve into the topic of pupil identities and subcultures. This subject builds upon the previous section you studied on roles and processes, which explored the concept of labelling and the labelling process, as well as groupings within the classroom and school environment. Our focus will be on the consequences of these groupings and labelling processes, which can influence the formation of subcultures and prompt students to join either pro-school or anti-school subcultures. This will enable us to explore how these processes contribute to the shaping of pupil identities. Throughout the section, we will draw on the insights of sociologists who have investigated this topic


In the 1970s, Colin Lacey conducted research on the effects of labelling in schools. Lacey argued that labelling, which is often unconscious, can lead to the creation of pupil subcultures as a response. However, these subcultures are not the same as the cliques often depicted in American TV shows and movies, such as jocks or band geeks. Rather, they are characterized by pro and anti-school attitudes. Lacey identified two factors that contribute to the formation of pupil subcultures: differentiation and polarisation. Differentiation refers to the practice of teachers categorising pupils according to ability, attitude or behaviour, which leads to the separation of students into different groupings such as streaming in class groupings, mixed ability groupings, and the like. Polarisation, on the other hand, is the process in which students respond to differentiation by moving towards one or more polar opposites or extremes. Thus, some students become pro-school, while others become anti-school. It is important to note that not all students fall into either of these groups, as some simply exist without standing out for excellence or poor behaviour. These students are often referred to as "gliders" who quietly make their way through the education system.


In sociology, the term "pro-school subculture" refers to a group of students who exhibit exceptional academic performance and are fully committed to the values of their educational institution. These students attain their status and social standing through academic achievement, typically by obtaining outstanding grades such as A's, A* at A Level and grades eight and nine at GCSE. However, there are also students who do not necessarily excel academically but participate in various school activities, such as school council, bands, orchestras, and sports teams, and are thus classified as "new enterprisers." These individuals are actively involved in the wider school community and are often admired by their peers, teachers, and parents. They are seen as the epitome of a model student, belonging to multiple extracurricular groups, and are often the lead performers in school plays and orchestras. Their participation in sporting events is also notable, as they are typically selected for the first teams. These students often volunteer for open events, and their behaviour is marked by a friendly and approachable demeanour, which engenders admiration and respect. The pro-school subculture consists of individuals who are invested in their education and strive to achieve high grades. These individuals are often labelled positively, which leads to their internalization of a positive self-concept and a desire to succeed academically. The desire for academic achievement is seen as desirable within the pro-school subculture, and anything less than a top grade is deemed disappointing.


In sociology, there are different subcultures that exist in schools. One such subculture is the anti-school subculture, which is the polar opposite of the pro-school subculture. The individuals who belong to this subculture reject the values of school, are often absent, display disruptive behaviour, fail to complete homework, and do not comply with uniform guidelines. These individuals seek approval and recognition from their peers by demonstrating challenging and disruptive behaviour, such as calling out inappropriately during lessons or attempting to embarrass teachers. They tend to take advantage of supply teachers, as they believe they can evade consequences. The anti-school subculture is characterized by a clear disdain for school and education in general. These individuals do not see the point in putting effort into their studies, as they do not believe that achieving high grades is important for their future.

Those who belong to the anti-school subculture are often at risk of exclusion and are more likely to underachieve in their education. This can be attributed to the negative labels that they receive, such as being labelled as a bad student, troublesome, or disruptive. When these individuals internalize these negative labels, they may begin to see themselves as incapable of academic success.

It is important to note that belonging to either subculture can impact academic achievement. Research has shown that those who subscribe to a pro-school subculture tend to achieve higher academic success, while those who are part of an anti-school subculture are more likely to underachieve.


It is important to note that the process of negative labelling is not guaranteed to lead to underachievement or the development of an anti-school subculture. Research has shown that some individuals, particularly black girls, may reject negative labels and adopt a mentality of proving their teachers and school wrong. Margaret Fuller's study in 1984 of black girls in a London comprehensive found that instead of accepting negative labels such as being loud and aggressive, these girls took on a "I'm going to prove you wrong" mentality and worked hard to achieve academic excellence. While they still formed an anti-school subculture, their approach to it differed from the aggressive anti-school subcultures identified by Mac an Ghaill, such as the macho lads. Other individuals, such as the new enterprisers, may not prioritize traditional academic excellence but instead seek vocational qualifications as a means to success. Gender also plays a role in the development of anti-school subcultures, with girls exhibiting a more feminized approach that focuses on romantic relationships and the idea that academic qualifications are not necessary if they can find a partner to take care of them. These findings highlight the complexity of pro and anti-school subcultures and suggest that the dynamics involved are not as simple as a binary categorization. Lacey, for example, has pointed out that the gendered nature of anti-school subcultures is far more nuanced than previously believed.

One of the criticisms of the labelling theory that leads to subcultures is its determinism. The theory posits that the label attached to an individual causes them to become a member of a particular subculture. However, this approach takes away the freedom of choice from the individual, as noted by sociologist Margaret Fuller. The theory also overstates the autonomous power of teachers to influence and affect students while ignoring the role of power dynamics. Schools often encourage teachers to label students through various means, such as target grades, which inform teachers about students' grades and create a predisposition to label students accordingly. This notion of teacher agency, therefore, exaggerates the role that teachers play in the labelling process. Finally, changes have occurred in education, including shifts in teacher training that raise awareness of unconscious biases and the labelling process. As a result, teachers are now more aware of the impact of labelling, which can influence their behaviour towards students. As a quote goes, "if you believe something to be true, you will behave as if it is true," highlighting the positive and negative impact of labelling on student behaviour.