Pupil Subcultures

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

Last Updated on February 8, 2023 by Karl Thompson

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

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