Free School Meals for All London Pupils

All primary pupils in London schools are going to get Free School Meals from September 2023 according to an announcement from the Mayor of London on Monday.

This new policy will cost £130 million, save the average family £440 a year and benefit around 270 000 children.

In an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme (20/02/2023) Henry Dimbleby, former head of the government’s national food strategy, explained the benefits of universal free school meals and the ideological barriers which have prevented this policy being enacted at a national level.

Trials had been done under the Labour government way back in 2013 in some local authorities including Newham, Durham and Islington which revealed that providing universal free school meals to all pupils significantly improved the academic performance of children who had previously been on free school meals, but the the performance of ALL children improved.

Those who had previously been on free school meals saw the most academic improvement, one theory for this change being that when ALL pupils can access free school meals it changes the culture of the school, removing the stigma of poverty at mealtimes and thus makes poorer students feel more included.

What about the rich kids who don’t need free school meals?

All children already benefit from free education which includes access a whole range of other material resources such as text books, so adding on free school meals isn’t that big a deal!

There is also evidence that all children benefit from this policy and it closes the inequality gap: A more recent study from Sweden showed that the introduction of universal free school meals improved the lifetime income of poorer students by 6% and the richest people’s only rose by 2%

The biggest drag on our economy is long term sickness, and the biggest cause of this is poor diet.

Why don’t we have free school meals in England?

According to Henry Dimbleby the current Tory government are ideologically opposed to universal benefits and this is the main reason we do not have free school meals for every child in England and Wales.

Both Nick Clegg and Michael Gove were in favour of universal free school meals when we had a coalition government, but since then neoliberal ideology means the government isn’t prepared to find the money to care for the poorest children in society.


This material is relevant to the compulsory education aspect of the AQA’s first year of A-level sociology.

It is especially relevant to the topic of social class differences and education, as universal free school meals seem to be one of the most effective policies which can reducing the effects of material deprivation on educational achievement.

It is also a reminder of the continued harms of neoliberal education policy.

Sources/ Find out More

The Guardian (20/02/2023) London to offer free school meals to all primary pupils for a year.

School league tables changing to include exam results of excluded pupils

School league tables are  changing so that they include the exam results of schools’ excluded pupils.

This social policy is designed to discourage schools from excluding potentially low-performing students with the intention of improving their exam results on paper.

Along with data on formally excluded pupils schools will also have to included data on off-rolled pupils, or pupils who have been informally excluded, for example by the school coming to an agreement with the parent that they will voluntarily un-enroll their child rather than their being formally excluded.

This seems to be the government’s response to the fact that school exclusions have rise by 40% in the last three years, after a period of decline….

school exlcusion statistics

At first glance this does seem to be an effective way of dealing with the recently growing problem of off-rolling – where the schools effectively just left it to the parents to re-enroll their child elsewhere, which many of them didn’t (as I’ve written about here). With this policy in place the schools who do this are at least more likely to follow up on what’s happened to their excluded children.

It might also make some schools innovate to deal with their ‘problem children’ more in-house rather than letting someone else deal with the problem.

It’s also an interesting example of a social policy response that recognizes that certain headmasters are prepared to game the system by engaging in underhand tactics to improve their results – this strategy of excluding to improve results (at least this is what appears to be going on) is mainly practiced by academies.

However, maybe it’s just a sticking plaster? Maybe we should be thinking more about why so many kids are being excluded, which means thinking about why they don’t like school, and think about how we can maybe change the system from the ground up?!?


The Times 

What are the most valuable degrees?

The most valuable degree you can do is economics, and the least valuable is health and social care. 

At least according to the latest research by the IFS on the impact of Higher Education on future earnings

The table below compares earnings at age 29 of female graduates compared to non graduates for different subject areas.

highest earning degree subjects.pngAs you can see, female economics graduates earn 150% more than non graduates, with medicine not far behind and most of the rest of the STEM subject graduates earning 100% more. 

Meanwhile at the other end of the scale social care and create arts degree graduates only earn about 20-25% more than non-graduates, making these degrees a lot less valuable in terms of purely financial returns. 

The significance of these statistics 

Fair enough I guess that medicine yields a decent return, I don’t think there’s much scope to criticise that, and given the innovation within science and engineering, the fact that these degrees result in 100% higher earnings at age 29 isn’t surprising either. 

HOWEVER, I have a problem with economics graduates earning so much more. It’s very unlikely that these people are earning so much money because of the social good they are doing. It’s probably more likely that they’re sucking money upwards to the already rich working for corporations and hedge funds, or doing crude econometric (read ‘guess work’) analysis for large institutions like the World Bank. They’re reward is probably making the rich richer, or at least keeping them rich. 

Meanwhile down at the bottom, I’m not so sure whether the low return on the caring degrees shows how little we value this qualitative side of life, rather than the fact that degrees in such subjects maybe can’t teach you that much?!? I mean with caring, how much is there that you can’t learn on the job, honestly, or just learn at level 3. 

Don’t get me wrong though, I think caring professions are very much underpaid. 

As to creative arts… I’m not sure whether these are undervalued, difficult for me to say with any level of objectivity, although if these stats are anything to go by, it shows us that ‘society’ doesn’t value art very highly! 

NB – The figures for men are a little different, check out the above study if yer interested! 


The effect of private schools on future income

Men who went to a private school* go on to earn 78% more at age 29 than men who come from the lowest ‘social class’ quintile. 

Women who went to a private school* go on to earn 100% more at age 29 than women from the lowest ‘social class’ quintile.

private schools income.png

By age 29, men who had been to a private school earn on average £41 000 per annum, compared to only £23 000 per annum for those from the lowest SES background. 

The respective figures for women are £36 000 and £18000. 

Those who attended private school even earn considerably more on average than those from the top SES quintile. 

This is from the latest IFS study on the impact of Higher Education on future earnings

The significance of these statistics 

This is YET MORE evidence of how private schools seem to play a crucial role in the reproduction of class inequality. The chain seems to be:

  • Go to a private school and get hot-housed
  • Get into a Russel Group university
  • Get a better paid job. 

It also shows that we need to keep researching exactly how private schools confer advantages on children from rich backgrounds and on just exactly how material and cultural capital combine to get these kids better jobs as adults. 

You might like to read this post for more detailed info

Limitations with these statistics 

The above stats show all earners, including those who failed their GCSEs, so we’re not really comparing like with like when we compare highest and lowest SES categories, because so many people from the lowest SES category fail to get 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, which means they are much less likely to go to HE, which has a significant negative impact on their earnings at age 29.

With these stats we are going back to a cohort which sat their GCSEs over 10 years ago, so they are already dated, although in fairness, this is unavoidable with a longitudinal analysis such as this. 

*Given that only 7% of UK children go to private school, and that most have to pay fees, attendance at private school strongly suggests that this is the top tenth decile of students by ‘social class’ background, so the top half of the top fifth. 


School Types in England and Wales – Statistical Overview…

As of 2017, there were over 250 000 children in ‘Converter Academies’, 86, 000 students in sponsored academies, and 170 000 students in LEA maintained schools. This that in 2017 there were twice as many students in converter and sponsored academies combined as there are in LEA funded mainstream schools….

Number Pupils Schools Academies

Free Schools, meanwhile, cater to only just over 3000 students, with studio schools the least popular type of school, with only 1200 students.

Click on the link above, for the (slightly lame) interactive version… NB this is me still trying to get my head around Tableau!


The Hidden Curriculum and School Ethos

The Hidden Curriculum is the unwritten rules, norms and values to which students are expected to conform while in school.

The hidden curriculum refers to those norms and values which are taught indirectly and are part and parcel of the organisation and routines of the school. Examples of things taught through the hidden curriculum include punctuality, respect for authority and having a pro-school attitude.

The norms taught through the hidden curriculum come from the school itself (and are similar in many schools) and are seen by those in power (management) as being necessary for a school to function smoothly, and its norms and values are enforced in the day to day running of the school by teachers.

The Hidden Curriculum is normally contrasted to the ‘formal’ curriculum which consists of the formal program of specific subjects and lessons which governments, exam boards and schools designs to promote the educational achievement of students.

The ‘school ethos’ refers to the character, atmosphere, or ‘climate of the school’. It is a phrase that you will hear headmasters use to describe their school to parents and the attitudes expected of pupils. It is a very similar to the concept of the hidden curriculum, as many of the norms that fall into the ‘ethos’ of school are also those which are regarded as taught through the hidden curriculum by sociological observers.

Examples of the hidden curriculum

There are several expected patterns of behaviour which are transmitted through the hidden curriculum, embedded into the day to day running of the school.

  • respecting hierarchy and authority: this is everywhere in school life. We see it in the management hierarchy (headmaster, leadership team, heads of department, teachers), we see it in the prefect system, and we see it in the organisation of the classroom with the teacher’s desk at the front.
  • punctuality: students are expected to be on time at the beginning of the day and to lessons, and this is emphasised constantly by teachers and even alarms signifying the end end of lessons and break times.
  • Wearing a uniform imposes the idea that commitment to the school is more important than individual identity.
  • respect for other pupils’ opinions: equality and diversity has become a much more significant part of of school ethos in recent years, with the respect agenda
  • aspiring to achieve: many school mottos have aspirational content and teachers don’t generally accept a can’t do attitude.
  • having a ‘work ethic’: students are expected to take ownership of their work and be self-motivated, especially once they get to GCSE level.
  • Consent to being surveilled: something more subtle, but students don’t get much privacy where their school life is concerned. From the moment they enter school they are under physical and intellectual surveillance for most of the day.

Whether we use the term ‘hidden curriculum’ or ‘school ethos’ the norms that make these up are typically NOT open for question or debate. They are just expected patterns of behaviour that students are expected to conform to and if they do not conform then punishments follow.

For example, students may not like punctuality or wearing a uniform and they may complain about both of these, but if they do not conform, they will be punished.

The Marxist Perspective on the Hidden Curriculum

The idea of the Hidden Curriculum was was a key idea within the Marxist perspective of education, back in the 1970s.

Bowles and Gintis explicitly mentioned it in their Correspondence Principle when they argued that the norms taught through it got children ready for future exploitation at work.

They argued, for example, that accepting the authority of teachers in school got children ready for accepting the authority of managers later in work. The learning of values was thus part of ideological control.

Contemporary research

Some relatively recent research has a slightly more nuanced take on the messages transmitted through the hidden curriclum.

Cotton, Winter and Bailey (2013) argue that schools place the highest value on efficiency and value for money, which is a reflection of neoliberal marketisation policies since the late 1980s. Children today are exposed to repeated messages about the importance of hard work, individual responsibility and aspiring to achieve in a competitive environment.

In contrast the values of equality and opportunity are not emphasised in schools, they take a back seat to individualistic aspiration.

How important is the Hidden Curriculum?

How relevant is the concept of the ‘Hidden Curriculum’ today?

One slightly tricky thing with the concept of the hidden curriculum is that over the years many of the norms associated with it have in fact become formalised and written down as explicit rules in codes of conduct which students have to sign, meaning they are very VISIBLE.

Good examples of this are rules about punctuality, homework and dress codes.

However such norms are still not part of the formal subject curriculum so you can probably still get away with calling anything that isn’t a subject part of the curriculum which is hidden.

Or maybe we should be referring some of the norms above as part of the ‘curriculum formerly known as hidden’…?

This is one of the reasons why ‘School Ethos’ might be a more relevant concept for today’s schools.

It’s also worth considering that even if there is a hidden curriculum today, it isn’t necessarily the case that students will passively soak it up like Bowles and Gintis suggested, they are just as likely to resist it!

School Ethos

The ‘school ethos’ refers to the character, atmosphere, or ‘climate of the school’. This might include things like:

  • whether there is an emphasis on academic success, and/ or artistic or sporting achievements.
  • whether there is an emphasis on equal opportunities for all students – does the school focus on helping disadvantaged students, for example?
  • whether there is an emphasis on respect for diversity – does the school promote multiculturalism and anti-racism and sexism?
  • Whether the school encourages students to participate in community life.
  • The extent to which there is an entrepreneurial culture and strong ties with local businesses at the school.
  • whether parents are encouraged to get actively involved in the life of the school.
  • The type of learning a school encourages – whether formal, traditional ‘chalk and talk’ learning, or independent learning, for example.

School Ethos: what’s the relevance?

It’s probably most relevant when trying to understand what’s really different about elite education in the very top public schools such as Eton and Harrow.

The ethos of these schools is really that they teach pupils that they are part of the ruling elite. For example Westminster School has pictures of Winston Churchill and other leaders hanging in their assembly rooms – as they are ex-pupils.

These schools also constantly remind pupils that they should be aiming for Oxbridge universities and they give pupils a global outlook, because of all the wealthy international students that attend them.

This means pupils come to the end of their schooling feeling as if they belong among the global elite, feeling as if they have the right to be earning a $50K salary as a starting wage.

In other words, it’s not just about the smaller class sizes, it’s the ethos that makes the difference, it’s the ethos that’s maybe worth £30K a year to the parents!?!

Sign Posting

For more posts on in school factors within education, please see my page on the sociology of education, which follows the AQA’s A-level sociology specification.

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Pupil Subcultures

A summary of some sociological studies on pupil subcultures exploring different types of subculture such as pro-school and anti-school subcultures.

Pupil subcultures are groups of students who share some values, norms and behaviour, which give them a sense of identify, and provide them with status through peer-group affirmation.

Pupil subcultures take a variety of forms, ranging from pro-school to anti-school subcultures, with a variety of other responses in-between, although it is mainly the anti-school subcultures that have been of interest to sociologists as these are related to educational underachievement, and they are just interesting in themselves!

This post defines anti and pro school subcultures, summarises some of the classic sociological studies on the topic, looks at subcultures in relation to class gender and ethnicity and finally offers some evaluations of how significant they are to an understanding of in-school processes today.

Types of School Subculture

The two main types of school subculture usually identified within the sociology of education are anti-school cultures and pro-school cultures, but there are plenty of more nuanced types of subculture that have been identified by researchers, often based on social class, gender and ethnic backgrounds of pupils.

The anti-school subculture

The anti-school subculture, (sometimes called the counter school culture), consist of groups of students who rebel against the school for various reasons, and develop and alternative set of delinquent values, attitudes and behaviours in opposition to the academic aims, ethos and rules of a school.

In the anti-school subculture, truancy, playing up to teachers, messing about, breaking the rules, avoiding doing school work and generally disrupting the smooth running of the school day become a way of getting back at the system and gaining status among peers.

Counter-school cultures are cultures of resistance, or anti-learning cultures, and participation in can be a means of gaining status among one’s peers – the more deviant an act, the more status you gain.

The classic study of the counter-school culture is Paul Willis’ (1977) ‘Learning to Labour‘ in which he observed 12 working class to find out why they spent all their time messing around in school rather than working.

The Pro-School Subculture

Pro-school subcultures are those which accept the values and ethos of the school and willingly conform to its rules. They tend to be those students in higher sets who aspire to high academic achievement and are prepared to work hard, and work ‘with the teachers’ to achieve these goals.

Pro-school subcultures are typically comprised of children from middle class backgrounds, although not in all cases. Mac An Ghaill (1994) found examples of two different types of pro-school subculture in his participant observation study: The academic achievers who were mainly middle class and pursing success through traditional A-level subjects, and The New Enterprisers who were mainly from working class backgrounds and pursuing success through vocational subjects such as Business Studies.

See below for more details on Mac An Ghaill’s study.

Between Pro and Anti-School Subcultures: A Range of Responses

Peter Woods (1979) suggested that dividing pupil subcultures into simply two poles: pro- and anti-school was too simplistic. Woods also suggested that students don’t easily split into subcultures, instead he suggested that there is a wide variety of responses to school, and pupils can switch between different adaptations as they progress through their school careers:

Peter Woods: Eight ways of adapting to school:

  • Ingratiation – Pupils who are eager to please teachers and have very favourable attitudes towards school. Conformist pro-school.
  • Compliance – Pupils who accept school rules and discipline, and see school as a useful way to gain qualifications, but who don’t have a wholly positive or negative attitude towards school. This is typical of first year students.
  • Opportunism – Pupils who fluctuate between seeking approval of teachers and form their peer groups.
  • Ritualism – Pupils who go through the motions of attending school but withiout great engagement or enthusiasm.
  • Retreatism – Pupils who are indifferent to school values and exam success- messing about in class and daydreaming are common, but such students do not want to challenge the authority of the school.
  • Colonization – Pupils who try to get away with as much as possible. Such students may express hostility to the school but will still try to avoid getting into trouble. More common in the later years of schooling.
  • Intransigence – troublemakers who are indifferent to school and who aren’t that bothered about conformity.
  • Rebellion – the goals of schools are rejected and pupils devote their efforts to achieving deviant goals.

Key studies on subcultures

The sad thing about subcultures in schools is that most of the classic research was done decades ago, possibly reflecting the fact that clearly identifiable subcultures were more likely to exist back then…

Some of the key studies include:

  • Hargreaves (1967) Labelling and Subcultures
  • Lacey (1970) Differentiation and polarisation
  • Willis (1977) Learning to Labour
  • Mirza (1984) Young, Female and Black
  • Mac an Ghail (1994) Masculinities and Schooling
  • Archer (2003) Muslim boys and education
  • Hollingworth and Williams (2009) Chavs, Townies and Charvers.

Below I include summaries of these key studies and links to further information where appropriate. Please see below for the full references.

David Hargreaves: Labelling and Subcultures

David Hargreaves (1967) argued that teacher labelling and streaming resulted in the formation of subcultures as students responded differentially to their positive or negative labels. He studied one secondary school and found that students labelled as ‘troublemakers’ were placed in lower streams, those viewed as having better behaviour were placed in higher streams.

The students placed in the lower streams were viewed as no hopers and had in fact been negatively labelled by the education system twice: once by being put in a failing school (a secondary modern) and then by being put in the lower streams. These students were regarded as ‘worthless louts’ by many teachers.

Faced with the prospect of being unable to achieve in school these students somehow had to maintain their self-worth and construct a sense of identity within the school.

Students who had been labelled as troublemakers tended to seek each other out and formed a non-conformist delinquent subculture in which they gained status through breaking school rules: disrupting lessons, giving cheek to teachers, truanting, not handing in homework.

Two distinct groups in fact emerged in the school according to Hargreaves: the conformists who were the ones who have been labelled positively and put in higher streams, and the non-conformist delinquents described above.

Differentiation and Polarisation

Lacey’s (1970) study of a middle class grammar school found that there were two related processes at work in schools – differentiation and polarization. Most schools generally placed a high value on things such as hard work, good behaviour and exam success, and teacher judge students and rank and categorise them into different groups – streams or sets – according to such criteria. This is what Lacey called differentiation.

One of the consequences of differentiation through streaming, setting and labelling is polarisation. This refers to the way students become divided into two opposing groups, or ‘poles’: those in the top streams who achieve highly, who more or less conform, and therefore achieve high status in the terms of the values and aims of the school, and those in the bottoms sets who are labelled as failures and therefor deprived of status.

Varies studies, such as that by Hargreaves (1967, 1976), Ball (1981) and Abraham (1989), have found that teachers’ perception of students’ academic ability and the process of differentiation and polarisation influenced how students behaved, and led to the formation of pro- and anti-school subcultures.

Paul Willis: Learning to Labour

Paul Willis (1977) conducted in-depth research with 12 working class lads in one comprehensive school in the Midlands who formed what he called a counter school culture.

The lads saw school and academic learning as pointless to their future lives as factory workers. They therefor resented school, and spent their time messing around and resisting any attempt to learn anything. Status was earned within the group by disrupting lessons and doing as little work as possible, in

The ‘lads’ in Willis’ study were very much a traditional, working-class macho subculture, and they defined the typically middle class students who obeyed the school rules as ‘earoles’ because they were always listening to the teacher, they also saw these students as a bit cissy, in contrast to their identification with ‘proper’ masculine working class manual-labour.

This is such a significant study in the the sociology of education that it’s worth a post in its own right, so I recommend having a look at ‘Learning to Labour‘ for a more in-depth look at this classic research study!

Masculinities, sexualities and schooling

Mac An Ghaill (1994) focused more on how gender identities influenced the formation of subcultures and demonstrated that subcultural responses were more complex than just being pro and anti school.

Mac An Ghaill identified at least four distinct subcultures: the macho lads, the academic achievers, the ‘new enterprisers’, and the Real Englishmen.

He also examined the experience of gay students, but it’s not clear whether these students formed a subculture.

He conducted research with year 11 students in a school in a mainly working class comprehensive school in the West Midlands and found that subcultures emerged in response to a range of factors such as:

  • the way the students were organised into sets
  • the curriculum they followed
  • the relationships the pupils had with their teachers
  • Students’ gender identities
  • the students’ position within the class structure
  • the changing labour market

The macho lads

These were the academic failures who had been placed in the bottom sets and they were much like the lads in Willis’ classic study. They saw school as a ‘hostile authority’ and making pointless demands on them. They formed an anti-school culture which was based around acting tough, having a laugh and looking after your mates. Messing around in lessons was also a norm of this subculture.

They viewed academic work as effeminate and were more likely to see physical work as ‘real work’. However unlike the lads in Willis’s study i the 1970s, there were very few manual jobs for the macho lads to go into, all they had to look forward to were substandard Youth Training Schemes and then probably unemployment, which created something of a sense of frustration.

Teachers saw it as one of their jobs to police the macho lads

The academic achievers

These had been put in top sets by teachers and were well regarded by them as they were positive about school, the subjects they were studying.

They were mostly from skilled manual working-class backgrounds and sought to achieve academic success by focusing on traditional academic subjects such as English, maths and the sciences. They were positive about their prospectives of being upwardly socially mobile.

The New Enterprisers

These were typically from working class backgrounds and rejected the traditional academic curriculum, which they saw as a waste of time, but were motivated to study subjects such as business and computing and were able to achieve upward mobility by exploiting school-industry links to their advantage.

The Real Englishmen

These were a small group of middle-class students typically from liberal professional backgrounds who rejected what teachers had to offer, believing their own culture and knowledge to be superior.

They saw the motivations of both the Enterprisers and Achievers as somewhat shallow although they did themselves aspire to going to university and professional careers.

They had something of an aloof attitude to school. Doing well was not something they valued as they saw school as beneath them, yet they needed to be successful in order to prove this, and so were concerned to achieve without making any apparent effort.

Of course they may well have worked hard at home, but it was the appearance of achieving effortlessly that was important.

Gay students

Mac An Ghail was one of the first researchers to take into account the experiences of gay students who found the school heterosexist and homophobic. They also criticised the normalisation of heterosexual relationships and the nuclear family within the school.

Heidi Mirza: Young, Female and Black

Mirza studied 62 black girls and women aged 15-19 in two secondary schools and found that they had positive attitudes towards achieving success in school. However many also thought that some teachers were racist and so formed subcultures based on their ethnicity which valued education but had little respect for the school which was seen as a racist institution.

Race, Masculinity and Schooling: Muslim Boys and Education

Louis Archer (2003) studied Muslim boys in four schools in North West England. She found that they valued aspects of ‘gansta’ masculinity such as being macho, being respected and talking tough.

However they also valued the more traditional masculinity associated with the breadwinner role within the family, and recognised that academic success was the most likely route to a decent job and income.

They also felt that some teachers were racist and that they were victimised by them, but this never manifested itself in an out and out anti-school culture.

Chavs, Charvers and Townies

Hollingworth and Williams (2009) researched the ways in which some working class pupils were labelled as ‘chavs’ by their middle class peers.

The research used interviews with 124 families together, 180 mothers and fathers seperately and 60 students aged between 12 and 25, so some parents and students were reflecting back on their school years.

The students were able to identify distinct subcultures:

  • Hippies or poshies
  • Goths and emos
  • Rockers and gansters
  • Townies, chavs or charvers.

The first three were mostly middle class, but the chav subcultures were invariably working class, but none of the working class students gave themselves those labels, rather they were imposed on them by their middle class peers who were keen to emphasise that they were not part of the chav subculture.

The middle class students looked down on ‘chav culture’ seeing them as immoral, antisocial, lacking self-control, having poor taste and being uninterested in education and thus likely to fail.

Social class, gender and ethnic subcultures

Students often group themselves along social class, gender and ethnic lines, and much research on this topic has focused on the educational significance of working-class subcultures, male subcultures and ethnic minority subcultures especially.

Below I include a summary grid of some of the different studies on subcultures in relation to social class, gender and ethnicity.


Why do pupils form subcultures?

There is significant theoretical debate concerning the formation of pupil subcultures (i.e. the question of where they come from).

The early theorists Hargreaves and Lacey focus on anti-school subcultures and argue these are a ‘response’ to teachers negatively labelling mainly working class boys and placing them in lower streams or sets. Those thus labelled then respond by forming anti-school cultures which reward individuals within them with status for misbehaving in school.

Paul Willis had a more nuanced approach arguing that the lads actively chose to form a counter school culture based on their accurate assessment that they school wasn’t relevant to them because they didn’t need qualifications to get working class jobs, so their counter-school culture was mainly just about passing the time by ‘having a laff’.

Later studies tend to focus on the diversity of subcultures within schools and see different subcultures emerging based on pupil’s class backgrounds, genders and sexualities. For example Mac an Ghail identified three different working class male subcultures alone within one school, two of which were pro-school but in different ways (one middle and one working class) and one of which was anti-school (working class).

The two studies by Mirza and Archer show that subcultures are formed based on ethnicities and perceptions of schools as racist institutions play a part in this, but both ethnic subcultures in these two studies remained generally positive about education.

Finally, Hollingworth and William’s study suggests that the subcultures perceived by middle class students are mainly based around style expect for those from the working class who are seen as ‘chavs’. However those who were labelled as chavs didn’t themselves identity as chavs which raises the question of whether this subculture ever really existed at all!

Tony Sewell has argue that the kind of students who join anti-school subcultures get their anti-school attitude from outside of school, so the subculture cannot simply be a response to processes within school.

Evaluations of Subcultures and subcultural theory

How important are subcultures for an understanding of in-school processes and the experience of education today?

Many of the older studies focussing on anti-school cultures are probably no longer relevant today. Many of the students who would have formed these cultures are probably now educated in Pupil Referral Units.

It is also the case that while they make for an interesting case study, the vast majority of students were never part of such groups, and even less so in today’s contemporary society.

If we fast forward to some of the more recent studies it is clear that some students continue to form subcultures, but along ethnic, gender and class lines, and these are more likely to be less extreme and certainly very unlikely to be anti-school.

If students today are aware of subcultures within their schools these will most likely be mere style subcultures and incidental to the school, with students having a normal attitude to school work.


This topic is part of the Education module within A-level sociology

Related posts on in-school factors include:

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Paul Willis (1977) Learning to Labour.

Mac An Ghail (1994) The making of men: Masculinities, sexualities and schooling.

Race, Masculinity and Schooling: Muslim Boys and Education. / Archer, Louise.Buckingham : Open University Press, 2003.

Hollingworth and Williams (2009) Constructions of the working-class ‘Other’ among urban, white, middle-class youth: ‘chavs’, subculture and the valuing of education

Brown: Sociology for AS

Chapman et al: Sociology AQA Year 1 and AS Student Book

Durkheim’s Perspective on Education

Emile Durkheim argued that schools were essential for ‘imprinting’ shared social values into the minds of children. He believed schools would play a central role in forming modern societies.

Functionalist sociologist Emile Durkheim saw Education as performing two major functions in advanced industrial societies – transmitting the shared values of society and simultaneously teaching the specialised skills for an economy based on a specialised division of labour.

Durkheim, a French sociologist, was writing at the turn of the twentieth century (late 19th and early 20th) and he believed that schools were one of the few institutions uniquely poised to assist with the transition from traditional society, based on mechanical (face to face) solidarity, to modern society, which was much larger in scale and based on organic (more abstract) solidarity.

Durkheim Education

Education and the Transmission of Shared Values

According to Durkheim ‘Society can survive only if there exists among its members a sufficient degree of homogeneity: education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child from the beginning the essential similarities which collective life demands’ (Durkhiem, quoted in Haralambos 2013). 

Education does this by instilling a sense of social solidarity in the individual – which involves instilling a sense of belonging to wider society, a sense of commitment to the importance of working towards society’s goals and a feeling that the society is more important than the individual.

Durkheim argued that ‘to become attached to society, the child must feel in it something that is real, alive and powerful, which dominates the person and to which he owes the best part of himself’ (Durkheim, quoted in Haralambos 2013). 

Education, and in particular the teaching of history, provides this link between the individual and society. If history is taught effectively, it ‘comes alive’ for children, linking them to their social past and developing in them a sense of commitment to the social group.

Education and Social Rules 

Durkheim argued that, in complex societies, school serves a function which cannot be fulfilled by either the family, which is based on kinship or friendship, which is based on personal choice, whereas being a member of wider society involves learning to get on with and co-operate with people who are neither our kin or our friends.

School is the only institution capable of preparing children for membership in wider society – it does this by enforcing a set of rules which are applied to all children, and children learn to interact with all other children on the basis of these shared rules – it thus acts like a society in miniature.

Durkhiem argued that school rules should be strictly enforced – with a series of punishments for those who broke the school rules which reflected the seriousness of the damage done to the social group by the child who broke the rules. Durkheim also believed that by explaining why punishments were given for rule breakers, children would come to learn to exercise self-discipline not only because of fear of punishment, but also because they could see the damage their deviant behaviour did to the group as a whole.

According to Durkheim social sciences such as sociology could play a role in making it clear to children the rational basis of social rules:

‘It is by respecting the school rules that the child learns to respect rules in general, that he develops the habit of self-control and restraint simply because he should control and restrain himself. It is a first initiation into the austerity of duty. Serious life has now begun’. (Durkhiem, Quoted in Haralambos, 2013). 

Education and the Division of Labour 

Durkheim argued that a second crucial function for education in an advanced industrial economy is the teaching of specialised skills required for a complex division of labour.

In traditional, pre-industrialised societies, skills could be passed on through the family, or through direct apprenticeships, meaning formal education in school was not necessary. However, factory based production in modern industrial society often involves the application of advanced scientific knowledge, which requires years of formal education to learn, thus schools become much more necessary.

Another factor which makes school necessary in modern societies (according to Durkheim) is that  social solidarity in industrial societies is based largely on the interdependence of specialised skills – the manufacture of a single product requires the combination of a variety of specialists. In other words, solidarity is based on co-operation between people with very different skill sets – and school is the perfect place for children to learn to get on with people with different backgrounds.

Taking the above two points together, Durkheim argues that schools provide ‘the necessary homogeneity for social survival and the ‘necessary diversity for social co-operation’.

Evaluations of Durkheim

  1. Postmodernists might criticise Durkheim for his assumption that society needs shared values – Britain has become much more multicultural in recent decades, and the extent to which there is a single British culture is debatable – there are whole communities which are largely cut off from mainstream culture, as evidenced in the case of ethnic segregation in Oldham.
  2. Marxists would be a bit more cynical about the relationship between school and work – according to Durkheim school is a neutral institution which simply transmits values and skills to individuals which enable the economy to run smoothly – according to Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle, this is a much darker process – school teaches working class kids to be passive, making them easier to exploit in later life.
  3. Ken Robinson in his ‘changing education paradigms‘ talk makes a number of criticisms of the contemporary education system – he argues it’s failing too many kids.
  4. Liberals such as Ivan Illich would even question the view that we need schools to transmit complex skills – In ‘Deschooling Society‘ he suggested that we could learn work related skills in a much more decentralised way, something which is even more possible today in the age of online learning.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This material is relevant to the Education topic within the sociology of education. It is really extension work to explore the The Functionalist view of Education in more depth.

Talcott Parsons is the second main Functionalist sociologist who wrote about education, in the 1940s and 1950s, so half a century later than Durkheim – Education and Universalistic Values

You might also like the following related post: Evaluating the Functionalist View of Education.

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Sources/ Find out more

Durkheim first outlines aspects of his views on the role of education in society in his classic text: The Division of Labour in Society.

This WikiPedia article on Durkheim is quite useful