The Hidden Curriculum and School Ethos

The Hidden Curriculum refers to the unwritten rules, values and normative patterns of behaviour which students are expected to conform to and learn while in school.

The Hidden Curriculum is normally contrasted to the ‘formal’ curriculum which consists of the formal programme 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’.

These two concepts are very similar to each other – to my mind ‘school ethos’ is a more modern concept used by schools themselves, which Marxists argue contains within it ‘the hidden curriculum’, although I also believe the concept of the Hidden Curriculum is maybe out of date, as MOST norms and rules within schools are now explicit.

Examples of things taught through the ‘hidden curriculum:

  • respecting authority
  • respect for other pupils’ opinions
  • punctuality
  • aspiring to achieve
  • having a ‘work ethic’

The Marxist Perspective and 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.

How relevant is the ‘Hidden Curriculum’ today?

A weakness of the concept of the ‘Hidden Curriculum’ is that most, if not all of the expected patterns of behaviour listed above are today written down and thus formally encoded in school rules, thus it’s debatable whether they are really ‘hidden’!?!

For example, students usually have to formally agree to them through their school’s tutorial system, so whether theses factors make up a truly ‘Hidden Curriculum’ today in school is, to my mind, questionable.

School Ethos might be a more relevant concept for today’s schools.

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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4 thoughts on “The Hidden Curriculum and School Ethos”

  1. That’s a good question – I’d say it’s essential – knowing what the informal norms and values are of the range of schools in a country, would surely enable the development of more effective formal curriculums?

  2. Thank you for a good description of the concept of hidden curriculum. But do curriculum developers need the knowledge of hidden curriculum?
    And if so why?.

    Please help me on this.

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