Teacher Labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy

Labelling theory holds that if a teacher labels a pupil a certain way, they will accept that label and it will become true.

The labels which teachers give to pupils can influence the construction and development of students’ identities, or self-concepts: how they see and define themselves and how they interact with others. This in turn can affect their attitudes towards school, their behaviour, and ultimately their level of achievement in education.

self fulfilling prophecy

Labelling refers to the process of defining a person or group in a simplified way – narrowing down the complexity of the whole person and fitting them into broad categories. At the simplest level labelling involves that first judgement you make about someone, often based on first-impressions – are they ‘worth making the effort to get to know more’, are you ‘indifferent to them’, or are they ‘to be avoided’.

According to labelling theory, teachers actively judge their pupils over a period of time, making judgments based on their behaviour in class, attitude to learning, previous school reports and interactions with them and their parents, and they eventually classifying their students according to whether they are ‘high’ or ‘low’ ability, ‘hard working’ or ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ or ‘well-behaved’, ‘in need of support’ or ‘capable of just getting on with it’ (to give just a few possible categories, there are others!). (*See criticism one below).

According to a number of small-scale, interpretivist research studies of teacher labelling, the labels teachers give to students are sometimes based not on their behaviour but on a number of preconceived ideas teachers have about students based on their ethnic, gender or social class background, and thus labelling can be said to be grounded in stereotypes.

A closely related concept to labelling theory is the that of the self-fulfilling prophecy – where an individual accepts their label and the label becomes true in practice – for example, a student labelled as deviant actually becomes deviant as a response to being so-labelled.

Labelling theory is one of the main parts of social action, or interactionist theory, which seeks to understand human action by looking at micro-level processes, looking at social life through a microscope, from the ground-up.

Classic studies on teacher labelling in education 

Most of the work of labelling theory applied to education was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Three classic works, summarised below include:

  • David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
  • R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)

David Hargreaves: Speculation, Elaboration, Stabilization

Hargreaves Deviance in Classrooms

David Hargreaves et al (1975) in their classic book ‘Deviance in Classrooms’ analysed the ways in which students came to be typed, or labelled. Their study was based on interviews with secondary teachers and classroom observation in two secondary schools, focusing on how teachers ‘got to know their students’ entering the first year of the school.

Teachers have only a very limited idea about ‘who their students are’ as individuals when they first enter the school, based mainly on the area where they came from, and they thus have to build up an image of their students as the school year progresses. Hargreaves et al distinguished three stages of of typing or classification:

  1. Speculation
  2. Elaboration
  3. Stabilisation

In the first stage, that of speculation, the teachers make guesses about the types of student they are dealing with. The researchers noted that there were seven main criteria teachers used to type students:

  • their appearance
  • how far they conformed to discipline
  • their ability and enthusiasm for work
  • how likeable they were
  • their relationship with other children
  • their personality
  • whether they were deviant.

Hargreaves et al stress that in the speculation stage, teachers are tentative in their typing, and are willing to amend their views, nevertheless, they do form a working hypothesis, or a theory about with sort of child each student is.

In the elaboration phase, each hypothesis is tested and either confirmed or contradicted, and through this process the typing of each student is refined.

When the third stage, stabilisation, is reached, the teacher feels that ‘he knows’ the students and finds little difficulty in making sense of their actions, which will be interpreted in light of the general type of student the teacher thinks they are. Some students will be regarded as deviant and it will be difficult for any of their future actions to be regarded in a positive light.

Labelling and social class

A lot of the early, classic studies on labelling focused on how teachers label according to indicators of social class background, not the actual ability of the student. 

Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations

Research in one American Kindergarten by Ray C. Rist (1970) suggested that the process of labelling is not only much more abrupt than suggested by Hargreaves et al, but also that it is heavily influenced by social class.

Rist found that new students coming into the Kindergarten were grouped onto three tables – one for the ‘more able’, and the other two for the ‘less able’, and that students had been split into their respective tables by day eight of their early-school career. He also found that teachers made their judgments not necessarily on any evidence of ability, but on appearance (whether they were neat and tidy) and whether they were known to have come from an educated, middle class family (or not).

Aaron V. Cicourel and John I.Kitsuse (1963) conducted a study of the decisions counsellors made in one American high school.

The counsellors largely decided which students were to be placed on programmes that prepared them for college. They claimed that their decisions were based on the grades students achieved in school and the results of IQ tests, but there were discrepancies: not all students achieving high grades and IQ scores were being placed on college-preparation programmes by the counsellors.

They found that the social class backgrounds of students had an influence. Those from middle class backgrounds were more likely to be placed onto higher level courses even when they had the same grades as students from lower class backgrounds.

Cicourel and Kitsuse argued that counsellors decisions were based around a number of non academic criteria related to social class such as the clothes students wore, their manners and their general demeanour.

Similarly when deciding which students were to be classified as ‘conduct problems’ counsellors used criteria such as speech and hairstyles which were again related to social class.

In general those with middle class manners were more likely to be labelled good prospects for college while those with working class manners and style were more likely to be labelled as conduct problems.

Labelling theory and the self fulfilling prophecy 

Self Fulling Prophecy Theory argues that predictions made by teachers about the future success or failure of a student will tend to come true because that prediction has been made. Thus if a student is labelled a success, they will succeed, if they are labelled a failure, the will fail.

The reasons for this are as follows (you might call these the positive effects of labelling):

  • teachers will push students they think are brighter harder, and not expect as much from students they have labelled as less-able.
  • Building on the above point, a positive label is more likely to result in a good student being put into a higher band, and vice versa for a student pre-judged to be less able.
  • Positively labelled students are more likely to develop positive attitude towards studying, those negatively labelled an anti-school attitude.
  • The above may be reinforced by peer-group identification.

It follows that in labelling theory, the students attainment level is, at least to some degree,  a result of the interaction between the teacher and the pupil, rather than just being about their ability.

A classic study which supports the self fulfilling prophecy theory was Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) study of an elementary school in California. They selected a random sample of 20% of the student population and informed teachers that these students could be expected to achieve rapid intellectual development.

They tested all students at the beginning of the experiment for IQ, and again after one year, and found that the RANDOMLY SELECTED ‘spurter’ group had, on average, gained more IQ than the other 80%, who the teachers believed to be ‘average’. They also found that the report cards for the 20% group showed that the teachers believed this group had made greater advances in reading.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that the teachers had passed on their higher expectations to students which had produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Gender, ethnicity and labelling

A considerable amount of research has been done into the ways in which students of different genders and ethnicities are labelled by teachers.

One classic study of gender and labelling was John Abraham’s research in which he found that teachers had ideas of ‘typical boys’ and typical girls’, expecting girls to be more focused on schoolwork and better behaved than boys in general. Teachers also had higher expectations of girls than boys.

The issue of gender and labelling is covered in more depth in this post: Gender and educational achievement: in school processes.

Many studies have also focused on how teachers label differentially based on both gender and ethnicity simultaneously.

David Gilborn (1990), for example, has argued that teachers have the lowest expectations of Black boys and even see them as a threat, while Connolly (1998) found that teachers label Asian boys’s disruptive behaviour as immature rather than deliberately disruptive, so they weren’t punished as severely as Black Boys. Meanwhile Asian girls were largely ignored because they were seen as passive and not willing to engage in class discussion.

The issue of ethnicity and education is covered in more depth here: Ethnicity and differential achievement: in school processes

Contemporary research on labelling theory 

Waterhouse (2004), in case studies of four primary and secondary schools, suggests that teacher labelling of pupils as either normal/ average or deviant types, as a result of impressions formed over time, has implications for the way teachers interact with pupils.

Once these labels are applied and become the dominant categories for pupils, they can become what Waterhouse called a ‘pivotal identity’ for students – a core identity providing a pivot which teachers use to interpret and reinterpret classroom events and student behaviour.

For example, a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘normal’ is likely to have an episode of deviant behaviour interpreted as unusual, or as a ‘temporary phase’ – something which will shortly end, thus requiring no significant action to be taken; whereas as a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘deviant’ will have periods of ‘good behaviour’ treated as unusual, something which is not expected to last, and thus not worthy of recognition.

Criticisms of the labelling theory of education

Negative labelling can sometimes have the opposite effect – Margaret Fuller’s (1984) research on black girls in a London comprehensive school found that the black girls she researched were labelled as low-achievers, but their response to this negative labelling was to knuckle down and study hard to prove their teachers and the school wrong.

Given the above findings it should be no surprise that the Rosenthal and Jacobson research has been proved unreliable – other similar experimental studies reveal no significant effects.

Labelling theory attributes too much importance to ‘teacher agency’ (the autonomous power of teachers to influence and affect pupils) – structural sociologists might point out that schools themselves encourage teachers to label students. In some cases entry tests, over which teachers have no control, pre-label students into ability groups anyway, and the school will require the teacher to demonstrate that they are providing ‘extra support’ for the ‘low ability’ students as judged by the entry test.

One has to question whether teachers today actually label along social class lines. Surely teachers are among the most sensitively trained professionals in the world, and in the current ‘aspirational culture’ of education, it’s difficult to see how teachers would either label in such a way, or get away with it if they did.


This post has been written primarily for A-level sociology students, although it will hopefully be a useful primer for anyone with a general interest in this subject.

Labelling Theory is one of the main theories taught as part of the education module, and it is one of the main ‘in-school process’ students need to understand, alongside banding and streaming and student subcultures.

Students can also use this material to illustrate some of the key ideas of social action theory more generally when they study social theory in more depth in their second year.

Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com

Sources/ Find out More

  • David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
  • R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
  • Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)
  • Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives.

Evaluate the view that differences in educational achievement between social groups are the result of factors and processes within schools (30)

This question is relevant to the Education module within A-level sociology.

Students may get this or a similar question in the Education section of Paper One: Education with Theory and Methods.

The way to answer any question on ‘groups’ is ideally to give equal weight to all of social class, gender and ethnicity.

What is below is some notes on the kind of material you could include in this essay.


  • There are significant differences between class, gender, ethnic groups in terms of educational achievement
  • The idea that processes within school explain these differences is associated with Interactionism and especially labelling theory
  • Interactionists argue micro processes such as interactions between pupils and teachers, subcultures and issues of identity explain these differences rather than structural factures or home background/ socialisation and material differences Teacher Labelling
  • Howard Becker (1960s) argued middle class teachers have an ideal pupil and use this as a standard by which to judge all pupils. Positive labels were given based on things such as smart appearance and language (links to elaborated speech code), not intelligence. This gave MC pupils positive self-esteem (1960s) WC pupils negative
  • Rosenthal and Jacobsen argued labels can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy – where if a teacher doesn’t expect much of a student, they internalise the label and it becomes true. If the above is true, it will explain why WC pupils underachieve in education compared to MC pupils.
  • Labelling theory has also been used to explain why girls do better than boys – John Abraham (1980s) found that teachers thought typical boys were lazy and typical girls studious, thus they expected more of girls and encouraged them more than boys
  • It has also been applied by David Gilborn (1990s) to explain why African Caribbean children underachieve – he found that teachers thought black boys were more aggressive, and so this explained why they were 4* more likely to be excluded than white boys, which relates to underachievement.
  • A criticism of labelling theory is that there is limited evidence of it – all of the above studies are based on small samples and so unrepresentative, we can’t generalise from them.
  • A second criticism of labelling theory is that it is deterministic – students are not as passive as it suggests – not every student is effected negatively by a negative label for example, some try harder to prove the teacher wrong (Fuller’s research on black girls 1980s).
  • A third criticism of Labelling theory applied to education is that blames those in power, in this case teachers, for the failure of underachieving groups, arguing they are biased, the problem with the theory today is that teachers are probably amongst the least sexist/ racist/ classist professionals of all, and they are amongst the most well-trained at avoiding discrimination.

Pupil Subcultures

  • It has been argued that pupil subcultures are a response to in-school processes such as teacher labelling – with both pro and anti-school subcultures forming within schools. Peer groups reinforce positive or negative attitudes towards school, thus helping to explain levels of educational achievement. HOWEVER, much of the research actually suggests that although this is an in-school process, a lot of the attitudes that lead to subcultures emerging come from home background.
  • ‘Lad subcultures’’ have been blamed for the underachievement of boys. This linked to hegemonic (dominant ideas about) masculinity – stereotypically, ‘real men’ succeed without trying, and so there is pressure to not work in school. Verbal abuse is one way these peer groups reinforce such dominant masculine identities. Boys who try hard at school may be accused of being ‘gay’, for example.
  • To evaluate, this is especially true for working class boys, less so for middle class, but even MC boys tend to hide their efforts at school work from their peers. It will also be less the case for older children (doing A levels for example).
  • Paul Willis in 1977 found that the white working class lads he followed formed an anti-school culture, gaining status by ‘having a laff’ because they couldn’t see the point in school. However this wasn’t so much to do with in-school factors, the lads actively wanted working class factory jobs and so didn’t see the point of education.
  • Similarly Tony Sewell found that black boys who formed anti-school subcultures brought their anti-school ‘hyper-masculine street culture’ from home, and he argued that out of school factors were really the cause of such subcultures.

Banding and Streaming

Banding and Streaming has been found to disadvantage both the working classes and some minority groups. Gilborn and Youdell (2007) point out that Black Caribbean children are overrepresented in the lower sets and are victims of ‘educational triage’ – such pupils effectively get ‘written off’ because they are perceived as having no chance of achieving A-Cs.

The Ethnocentric Curriculum

The ethnocentric curriculum (EC) might explain the underachievement of some ethnic groups – the EC is one which reflects the culture of one dominant group – for example the white majority culture in Britain – for example students have to study British history from the European point of view, use out of date textbooks that racially stereotype and some subjects having a narrow, white British focus.

To evaluate, the problem with the idea of the ethnocentric curriculum is that it cannot explain why so many ethnic groups do better than white children. It may be the case the Pakistani and Bangladeshi children feel marginalised by it, but they have caught up with white children in recent years and so achieve well in spite of ethnocentricity in education.

Moreover, schools in recent years have made huge efforts to be more multicultural – with RE and PSHE lessons and event such as ‘black history month’ doing a lot to raise awareness of diversity, so this has changed significantly.

Racism/ Institutional Racism

Crozier (2004) examined the experiences of racism amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils and found that the experience of racism from both the school system and other pupils led to a feeling of exclusion. The researchers discovered that Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils had experienced the following – anxieties about their safety; racist abuse was a lived experience of their schooling.

Some recent statistics also suggest that institutional racism is rife – black applicants are half as likely to be accepted onto teacher training programmes compared to white applicants (around 20% compared to 40% success rate). Professor Heidi Mirza, herself of African Caribbean origin, says there is evidence of discrimination within our education system today.

Overall Evaluations – Home factors – link to in-school factors!

  • Material deprivation — hidden costs/ exclusion// private schools.
  • Cultural deprivation – speech codes/ teacher labelling
  • Single parent families – banding and streaming
  • Policy – always favours the MC.


  • 90% of the difference comes from home background!

Signposting and Related posts 

For more essays, please see my main post on exam advice, short answer questions and essays.

Ethnicity and Differential Educational Achievement: In School Processes

In school factors include teacher labelling, pupil subcultures, the A-C economy, the ethnocentric curriculum and institutional racism.

In school process which may explain differential educational achievement by ethnicity include:

  • Teacher labelling which can be both positive and negative (high and low expectations depending on the ethnic group)
  • Pupil reactions to teacher labelling and pupil subcultures.
  • Banding and Streaming, with some minority pupils being overrepresented in lower sets.
  • The Ethnocentric Curriculum where what is taught in schools marginalises ethnic minorities.
  • Institutional Racism, where Racism is endemic at the level of policy.

Some people might regard racist banding and streaming and the ethnocentric curriculum as part of Institutional Racism, it’s just a matter of how you define it!

As a general rule Chinese and Indian students achieve the highest in education, and most ethnic minority groups achieve at a similar level to White children, with the exception of Black Caribbean students and Gypsy-Roma students.

This post provides an overview of the statistics on achievement by ethnicity.

Teacher labelling

Teacher pupil relationships may explain some of the differences in educational achievement by ethnicity, and since it is teachers who have the power in school, teacher labelling is something we need to consider.

There are a number of classic research studies which have found evidence of teacher labelling of ethnic minorities based on ethnic stereotypes…

Cecile Wright: labelling in primary schools

Cecile Wright (1992) Found that teachers perceived ethnic minority children differently from white children. Asian children were seen as a problem that could be ignored, receiving the least attention and often being excluded from classroom discussion and rarely asked to answer questions.

Teachers assumed their command of the English language was poor but they were highly disciplined and well motivated. African Caribbean children were expected to behave badly and received considerable attention, nearly always negative. They were seen as aggressive and disruptive. They were often singled out for criticism even in action ignored in other children.

David Gilborn: African-Caribbean children as a threat

David Gilborn (1990) Found that while the vast majority of teachers tried to treat all students fairly, they tended to see African-Caribbean children as a threat when no threat was intended and reacted accordingly with measures of control. Despite the fact that teachers rejected racism their ethnocentric perceptions meant that their actions were racist in consequence.

African-Caribbean children experienced more conflict in relationships with pupils, were more subjected to the schools detention system and were denied any legitimate voice of complaint.

Tony Sewell: Teachers threatened by Black masculinities

Tony Sewell (Black Masulinities and Schooling, 1996): Sewell was primarily interested in the experiences of black boys in education and he found that some black students were disciplined excessively by teachers who felt threatened by these students’ masculinity, sexuality and physical prowess because they had been socialised into racist attitudes. He also found that the boys in the study found that their culture received little or no positive recognition in the school.

NB: Tony Sewell ultimately holds black boys themselves responsible for their underachievement: it is their negative attitudes to schools that are mostly to blame in his opinion, but he does at least recognise that negative teacher labelling doesn’t help!

Connolly: Stereotyping of Asian students

Connolly (1998) found that teachers generally had (stereotypical) high expectations that South Asian British boys would perform well in school and if they were deviant they interpreted this behaviour as immature rather than deliberately disruptive. They were thus not punished to the extent that Black British boys were.

Connolly also found that while Asian girls were generally successful in the education system, teachers tended to overlook them in class discussions because they held stereotypical assumptions about them being passive and reluctant to discuss issues relating to family life and gender roles specifically.

Do teachers label ethnic minorities today?

Many of the above research studies are now 30 years old and focus on labelling of black-boys. There is much less evidence that teachers negatively label black boys today. Moreover black African boys to better than white boys in school and black Caribbean boys have been closing the gap, so it’s unlikely that teacher labelling can play a role in explaining differential educational achievement.

PREVENT policy and labelling

Since 2015 PREVENT policy has required teachers to monitor extremist behaviour in schools to prevent students becoming terrorists. There is some evidence that teachers have labelled the behaviour of Muslim children as indicating they are being radicalised into extremist views.

For example in one case a Muslim child was referred to authorities because he asked how to make a bomb in a physics class, whereas the same treatment didn’t happen to white children. If a child is passed onto authorities for invasive questioning about radicalisation it could have a negative impact on their attitude towards school.

Also PREVENT doesn’t specify that Muslim children should be targeted (rather than say White extremists) but it is Muslims who make up the majority of referrals under PREVENT, suggesting racist labelling is occurring.

However, statistically this kind of labelling probably doesn’t affect the achievement of Muslim students who are mainly of Pakistanis and Bangladeshi origin, as overall the achievement of both these groups has been improving.

Chinese students labelled as hyper-achievers

Chinese students may well be disadvantaged by teachers labelling them as hyper-achievers (3).

Either they are perceived by teachers as valuing education, spurred on by pushy parents, which puts added pressure on them to perform, or teachers think they work too hard, meaning they are unlikely to be pushed while some of them may need just that. Either way the ‘hyper-achiever’ label given to Chinese students may not benefit them!

Pupil Subcultures

Some (now quite dated) participant observation research has found that anti-school subcultures among black boys may be responsible for their historic underachievement .

Some of the research below sees the emergence of subcultures as a response to teacher labelling and so the two factors: teacher labelling and collective pupil responses may work together.

Tony Sewell: A culture of anti-school black masculinity

Tony Sewell (1997) observes that Black Caribbean boys may experience considerable pressure by their peers to adopt the norms of an ‘urban’ or ‘street’ subculture. More importance is given to unruly behaviour with teachers and antagonistic behaviour with other students than to high achievement or effort to succeed, particularly at secondary school.

According to Sewell, among many black boys, academic success is associated with femininity and success may mark them out for bullying from their peers whereas academic failure is seen as a badge of honour.

Fordham and Ogbu (1986) further argue that notions of ‘acting White’ or ‘acting Black’ become identified in opposition to one another. Hence because acting White includes doing well at school, acting Black necessarily implies not doing well in school.

Mac an Ghail: Young, Gifted and Black

Mac an Ghail (1998) Young, Gifted and Black – Mac an Ghail was a teacher in two inner city colleges. He looked at three subcultures – the Asian Warriors, the African- Caribbean Rasta Heads and the Black Sisters. He used mainly participant observation both in the school and through befriending the students and socialising with them outside of the school.

What he found was that the African Caribbean community experienced the world in very different ways to white people – namely because of institutional racism in the college and he argued that any anti-school attitudes were reactions against this racism. He mainly blamed the school rather than the students for this.

Mirza: Black Girls’ Responses to Teacher Labelling

Mirza (992) found that teachers had stereotypically low expectations of black girls and thus didn’t push them too hard in lessons and entered them for lower tier exams.

The black girls Mirza studied did value education and wanted to work hard and do well, but they responded negatively to their teacher’s negative labelling by outwardly appearing to not care about school and care more about appearance.

This ultimately meant they were less likely to ask for help in lessons, less likely to get it and thus this reaction harmed their achievement.

Banding and Streaming

The organisation of teacher learning at the level of school may disadvantaged some ethnic minority groups.

Steve Strand (2012) Used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) and found that African Caribbean pupils did worse than their white peers in education even when we control for socio-economic disadvantage and cultural factors in the family.

Strand suggested that the higher exclusion rates of Black Caribbean students could explain some of the difference, as could the fact that they were more likely to have SEN statements, but this still didn’t explain all of the difference.

He noted that Black Caribbean students were less likely to be put into higher sets/ bands/ streams than their white peers and less likely to be entered for higher tier exams, and it is teachers who make decisions about banding and streaming and so ultimately teacher labelling is to blame here.

The Ethnocentric Curriculum

The ethnocentric curriculum is where the range and content of subjects taught in schools as part of the formal curriculum are biased towards the majority ethnic group and marginalise minority ethnic groups. In the case of the curriculum in English schools an ethnocentric curriculum would have a focus on White British culture and less of a focus on Black and Asian cultures.

Historically the Swann Report (1985) criticised the curriculum for being ethnocentric. Historical examples of the ethnocentric curriculum include:

  • British history being taught from the European point of view, possibly even putting a postive spin on colonialism.
  • White European languages such as French being taught as the main language subjects rather than Asian or African languages.
  • Symbolic annihilation of White and Asian people through their under-representation in textbooks.
  • Assemblies having a Christian focus, as well as the school holidays (Easter and Christmas).

However, the above examples are historic and you need to ask yourself whether the curriculum today is actually ethnocentric. A much higher proportion of pupils today are Black and Asian and schools have made progress towards making their curriculums more multicultural.

One example of this is the requirement by OFSTED that schools actively promote cultural diversity, and one visible manifestation of this is Black History Month.

Having said this some relatively recent research by Tikly et al (2006) studied 30 comprehensive schools and found that Asian students felt relatively invisible in the Curriculum.

Institutional Racism

Below is a summary of some of the evidence that suggests schools may be institutionally racist. For a more in-dept look at the issue please see this post: Are Schools Institutionally Racist?

When we step back and take a look at the statistics we find that Black Caribbean students are:

  • two and a half times more likely to be permanently excluded than White children.
  • more like to be identified with behavioural related special needs
  • less likely to be identified as gifted and talented
  • more likely to be put into lower sets.

Taken together these statistics may raise our suspicions about whether schools are institutionally racist, and there have been some sociologists who have argued that they are.

Exclusion Rates by Ethnicity

The permanent exclusion (2) rates for Black Caribbean and mixed White Black/ Caribbean are two and half times higher than for White children. The respective exclusion rates are:

  • 2.5 children per 10 000 Black Caribbean pupils
  • 2.4 children per 10 000 mixed Black Caribbean and White pupils
  • 1 child per 10 000 White pupils.

Gypsy and Roma children have the highest exclusion rates of all minority groups with 3.9 children per 10 000 pupils being permanently excluded, four times as many exclusions compared to White children.

But in order to find out whether these statistics reflect institutional racism we would need to look more at the specific cases to see if there is differential treatment leading up to the exclusions for different ethnic groups.

Racism in Banding and Streaming

Gilborn and Youdell (1999) analysed statistics on banding and streaming by ethnicity. They found that Black-Caribbean students were less likely to be put in higher sets even if they had the ability to be there.

This meant Black-African children were disproportionately represented in lower sets in relation to their ability, which meant they weren’t pushed as hard and were not entered for higher tiered exam papers which ultimately meant lower GCSE results.

Experiences of Racism among pupils

Crozier (2004) found that Pakistani pupils ‘keep to themselves’ in school because they feel excluded by their white peers and marginalized by the school practices. Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils had experienced the following – Anxieties about their safety; Racist abuse was a lived experience of their schooling; Careers advisors at school believed South Asian girls were bound by tradition and it was a waste of time advising them; Not being allowed off during Ramadan; Not feeling that assemblies were relevant.

More recently, surveys conducted by Human Rights Watch found that 60% of Muslim students feel alienated by the way PREVENT polices are implemented in schools. They felt as if they couldn’t freely discuss politics or religion in classes because PREVENT was being interpreted through and Islamophobic lens.

Institutional Racism in University Entry?

Tariq Modood (2005) says – If we look at the best universities Whites are more likely to get an offer than other identical candidates. For example, while a White student has a 75% chance of receiving an invitation to study, a Pakistani candidate, identical in every way, has only a 57% chance of an offer.

This post explores the concept of institutional racism in schools in more depth.

Signposting and related posts

This material is relevant to the Sociology of Education option, usually taught in the first year of A-level Sociology.

In-school factors are usually considered alongside home based cultural factors in explaining differential educational achievement by ethnicity.

Related posts are linked above in this post and via the education page.


(1) The Swann Report (1985) – Education For All.

(2) GOV UK (Accessed January 2023) Permanent Exclusions.

(3) Francis et Al (2010) The Construction of British-Chinese Educational Success

Some material in this post was adapted from Chapman et al (2015) Sociology: AQA A-Level Year 1 and AS.

%d bloggers like this: