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.

Last Updated on February 10, 2023 by Karl Thompson

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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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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