Class differences in education: the role of in-school factors

In school factors include labelling, subcultures and the hidden curriculum.

Last Updated on March 3, 2023 by Karl Thompson

This post looks at how in school processes such as teacher-pupil relationships, subcultures, banding and streaming and the Hidden Curriculum all relate to class differences in educational achievement and the experience of education.

a mind map summarising the in school factors which explain social class inequalities in educational achievement, including teacher labelling and pupil subcultures.

This is a summary revision post, the more detailed posts are linked below.

Teacher pupil relationships

In the 1970s, Howard Becker argued that middle class teachers have an idea of an ‘ideal pupil’ that is middle class. This pupil speaks in elaborated speech code, is polite, and smartly dressed, He argued that middle class teachers are likely view middle class pupils more positively than working class pupils irrespective of their intelligence.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen argued that positive teacher labelling can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy in which the student believes the label given to them and the label becomes true in practise.

Many of the early studies discussed in this more in-depth post on teacher labelling are relevant to social class.

Pupil Subcultures

Willis’ (1977) research involved visiting one school and observing and interviewing 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school during their last 18 months at school and during their first few months at work. Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. They Lads attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ because they thought that their future work roles in factories would not require them to have qualifications. They saw school as irrelevant.

Mac an Ghail’s study of Parnell School (1994) – Found that there was a greater variety of working class subcultures that Willis’ research suggested. He found three types of subculture.

  1. The Macho Lads – just like Willis’ Lads.
  2. The Academic Achievers – these were working class kids who were doing well and tended to come from the upper end of the working classes.
  3. The New Enterprisers – these focused on vocational subjects and were interested in business and technology – were still concerned with success rather than rejecting school.
  4. Class and gender- Boys from different class backgrounds experience school differently.

Working class boys are generally under pressure to express traditional anti-school masculinities.

Middle class boys are more likely to try hard at school, expressing their masculinity through being competitive in examinations. However, middle class boys still feel some pressure to be seen to not be making an effort in school.

This post on subcultures and educational achievement has more details on the studies above.

The organisation of teaching and learning

Banding and Streaming disadvantages the working classes and some minority groups – Stephen Ball (1980s) found that following comprehensivisation working class children were more likely to be put into lower sets.

The Hidden Curriculum

Bourdieu argued that schools are middle class environments full of teachers with middle class values and tastes, which could mean the hidden curriculum is subtly skewed in favour of middle class students, making it something they are more comfortable with because their tastes are more in sync with those of the teachers.

In contrast working class pupils may feel less at home at school, and more so since there are fewer working class teachers than middle class teachers.

This post on the Hidden Curriculum explores how this works in schools in more depth.


This is one of the main topics within the sociology of education.

2 thoughts on “Class differences in education: the role of in-school factors”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: