Subcultures – Education

Lesson objectiveTo explore explore subcultures in education
Lesson outcomes• Assess how labelling supports subcultures
• Evaluate its significance
• Explain what subcultures exist

Banding, streaming and setting.

These are all ways that schools group students and are normally based on a range of factors, e.g. behaviour, ability etc. This in itself affects students in a range of ways; one notably is confidence. It is argued that students lose motivation depending on how low their set is and therefore are taught less as they are seen to have lower interest. 


  • Ball (1981), researched schools and found out that top stream students were encouraged to achieve highly and be more academic. However, lower-stream students were encouraged to be more vocational and achieve less. 
  • Smyth et al. (2006), focused on discovering a greater range of effects and as such found that lower sets were taught at a slower pace, students’ self-esteem was damaged and as they believed less in the school their behaviour actively tries to discourage other students from succeeding. 
  • The Sutton Trust (2010), found that streaming benefits those in the higher sets and the lower set students were left behind and were at a disadvantage. 

In general, evidence suggests that teachers teach students differently depending on their set. This causes lower setted students to perform weaker and adhere to negative stereotypes shaping their identity. 

Warming up and Cooling down. 

The warming up and cooling down of students has been heavily researched and there are generally two forms:

  1. The inflating and deflating of students aspirations, depending on their status within a school. 
  2. The pushing or limiting of a students attainment through various mechanisms e.g. differentiation. 

The two approaches are linked and normally both examples occur. There are many reasons why this occurs, the most significant, however, being that the students’ education needs to be linked to employment. Since the purpose, arguably, of education, is to gain employment, some students need to be pushed to go to university and others not. This will be closely looked at more since the new Ofsted Framework was introduced. Courses must lead to employment so those students who are more technical will be cooled down rather than warmed up. 

“We want to see providers developing the knowledge, skills and behaviours that learners need to progress and achieve. How are they adding value to learners’ progression or employment prospects? This is about rewarding providers that are doing the right thing by their students.”  (Ofsted 2019). 

Stretch and Challenge:

Educational Triage.

The term educational triage is a system of setting and streaming used by schools. It splits and divides pupils into 3 groups. Those who have a high chance of succeeding, those with an average and who need support and those who have a low chance. This groups, as we have already seen causes students to follow their stereotypes changing the way teachers teach them. This is usually measured by how likely pupils are to succeed in their qualification e.g. GCSE’s and the student’s target grade. This has been made even more important by governmental changes in 2011 which saw that any school who does not ensure 50% of students achieve an A* to C will be labelled as requires improvement by Ofsted. 

Student responses to the experience of schooling: School subcultures.

Differentiation and polarisation.

Lacey (1970), studied a middle-class grammar school and found a link between the two. Differentiation is treating either a group of students or on an individual basis ​differently, e.g. giving top set harder work to complete than the bottom. This links to polarisation, which is where individual students placed in those groups will conform to the norms and values present there. E.g. if a student is placed in a bottom set, their norms and values will eventually match those other students in the class. This creates two opposing poles 1) those who achieve highly and 2) those that do not.

Hargreaves (1997), ball (1981) and Abraham (1989) developed this further, finding that these poles then created subcultures that were either pro or anti-school.

The pro-school culture.

As stated above, the pro-school culture consists of students and groups of students who conform to the academic aims, ethos and rules of the school. This includes submitting homework on time and doing as expected, all of which results in a positive learning environment where success can emerge.

The anti-school culture.

This is the opposite from above whereby the purpose of the culture is to rebel from the system. This includes messing around, being rude, truancy etc. This is a culture of resistance creating a negative learning environment which favours failure.

The difference between the two (Woods). 

Wood (1979) concluded the idea of polarisation was too simple and that a more complex model was needed. He said more categories were needed and the model needed to be more fluid and flexible. Students can move up and down the scale below depending on a range of factors e.g. As a student gets closer to their exams, they are more likely to move up the scale rather than down. 


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