Labelling Theory

Document last edited: 29/02/2020

Please note: that I have currently written 7 essays on the Sociology of Education and intent to write a few more in the near future. Note that in each case these essays are far longer than could be written under examination conditions and that although they include points of knowledge , application and evaluation I tend to use separate paragraphs for each of these categories rather than to combine several categories in each paragraph  as in  the strongly recommended PEEEL approach whereby each paragraph should include Point; Explanation, Example: Evaluation and Link to following Paragraph.

I hope that you find the information in these essays useful but would strongly recommend that you write your own essays using the PEEEL approach or something very similar to it. Obviously your teachers will advise you as to appropriate essay writing technique.


Click here for DFE data relating to 2018/19 GCSE results Some data on ethnicity, free school meal eligibility and  gender can be found on pp7-12  in the main text document  but for more detailed information click on the third link [ Characteristics National Tables]  and then to find Tables CH1 and CH2   which are especially useful  February 2020 

Click here for DFE publication December 2019: Widening Participation in Higher Education

Essay: How important are  labelling theories as  explanations of inequalities of educational achievement.

Click on the Education Link above for related information including some PowerPoint Presentations

In an earlier version of this document I included a large  number of links to recent articles on Labelling Theory issues. I have now retained here  12 of these links which Advanced Level Sociology students may find helpful and relocated all other links to an appendix at the end of this document.

Please note that increasingly within the Sociology profession there is increasing support for mixed ability teaching in preference to setting/banding/streaming  but that there is also opposition to this view and students should be prepared to address both sides of this debate. The case for setting / banding / streaming is set out , for example  in the BBC article indicated below.

Click here for a set of podcasts from Esher Sociology in which  class, ethnic and gender differences in educational attainment are analysed in terms of internal and external factors October 2018

Click here and here  and here for articles on setting and streaming

Click here for link to Reassessing Ability Grouping [New study by Becky Francis and colleagues] February 2020

Tracking and social inequality:Becky Francis lecture  November 2019

 Click here for a new paper on from Professor Becky Francis and colleagues: The misallocation of pupils to academic sets in Mathematics July 2019

Click here for short video lecture by Professor Diane Reay who addresses some of the issues covered in this document December 2017

 Click here  and here for  information on the research of Becky Francis and her team.

Click here for a recent BBC item on Streaming. An ideal introduction. June 2018****

 Click here for an article from the Institute of Education [University College London] suggesting that setting "holds back low ability pupils" March 2018*****

Click here for article By Mary- Claire Travers on streaming and white working class pupils  July 2017****

Click here for BBC article ; "Should young children be grouped by ability?"  and here for Guardian coverage and here for the full study from NEU/ UCL  December 2017*****

Click here for a summary of a recent presentation by Professor Becky Francis which also contains a further link to the slides accompanying the presentation. Professor Francis provides recent statistics on patterns of educational inequality and some results of recent research which provides support for the continuing relevance of earlier labelling theory conclusions. Ideal resource for students. November 2016 *****

Click here for an exceptional paper by Diane Reay published in 2006. The paper is contains detailed theoretical arguments but you could read it perhaps with a little guidance from your teachers and use some of the materials to improve my essay. This would be a very useful exercise for you in my opinion [for what it is worth] *******

Click here for recent research on streaming, labelling and Mathematics teaching  [R. Marks in The Conversation] March 2016 ****

[Note that the question has been answered in relation to social class, gender and ethnic differences in educational achievement. How would you modify the answer if the question related only to social class differences in educational achievement?]

Essay Plan

Introduction: Interactionism and the Nature of Labelling  theories.

H. Becker R. Rosenthal and L Jacobson D. H. Hargreaves, S. Hestor and F. Mellor, R. Rist, R. Rosenthal and L Jacobson

Labelling Theories and Social Class Inequalities of Educational Achievement

D. Hargreaves, N. Keddie , S. Ball and P. Woods

Labelling Theories and Gender Inequalities of Educational Achievement

M. Stanworth ,S. Sharpe and B. Francis

Labelling Theories and Ethnic Inequalities of Educational Achievement

B. Coard, C. Wright ,H. Mirza, M. Mac An Ghaill, D. Gilbourn and D. Youdell

More Recent Studies: Mike O' Donnell and Sue Sharpe and Diane Reay

On the Interaction of Internal and External Factors


How important are labelling theories as explanations of inequalities of educational achievement.?


In UK society there are significant social class, gender and ethnic inequalities of educational achievement. With regard to each of these social groupings these inequalities have been explained in terms of different theories which emphasise differences in IQ [which it is claimed may be mainly inherited], differences in cultural and material circumstances operating outside of the school environment and processes operating within the schools themselves which involve negative and positive labelling.

 Labelling theories derive from the interactionist approach to Sociology in which sociologists focus their attention on the analysis of interactions among individuals in small groups .By the late 1960s in the USA and the UK  some  interactionist sociologists were undertaking relatively small scale studies of individual schools and classrooms often based mainly [but not entirely] on observational research methods which in their view would generate more meaningful  data than could be generated by other methods such as questionnaires and interviews. Interactionists in the UK were often especially keen to focus on the possible impacts  of negative and positive labelling and of systems of streaming, banding and setting on pupils’ educational achievements and generally came to the conclusion that working class and some ethnic minority pupils were disproportionately likely to be allocated to lower sets/streams and bands while female students might also be labelled in ways which adversely affect their educational prospects  while middle class pupils were likely to experience a so-called "Halo effect" as a result of positive labelling. An important  key concept here is the self-fulfilling prophecy whereby teachers' original  positive or negative expectations about pupil progress themselves help to generate pupil behaviour leading to test results which which cause the teachers' expectations to be confirmed.

Click here for a very useful diagrammatic description of the  possible effects of positive and negative labelling from  the Revise Sociology  website .

There are several well known studies of educational achievement from the 1960s onwards as well as may more recent studies which suggest that despite the criticisms made of earlier studies labelling theories continue to contribute to the explanation of patterns of differential educational achievement.

Let us first of all consider some of the findings and conclusions of some earlier studies.

One of the earliest studies by Howard Becker [originally published in the USA in 1952 but also in an anthology in the UK in 1971]  included findings based upon in -depth interviews with Chicago school teachers in the 1950s  and focused upon the extent to which teachers  constructed a notional model of what they considered to be "the ideal pupil" and then defined their own  pupils in terms of the extent to which  they corresponded to or diverged from this prior notion of "the ideal pupil" who was intelligent, interested in education, well -behaved and well groomed and as it turned out from an upper or middle class background although it is mentioned that upper class children could sometimes be supercilious and arrogant : "If I pick that up there wouldn't be any work for the janitor to do". There were also mainly lower middle class pupils  who were "very nice..they're not too hard to handle. They want  to work and do well...of course they're not too brilliant"   while working class children and especially lower working class children are in general seen as unintelligent , lacking interest in education, badly behaved and in some interviews described also as potentially extremely violent, unhygienic and morally disreputable. Teacher's expectations of these working class pupils are very low and Becker emphasises very strongly that these negative teacher expectations  are very likely to undermine the pupils' prospects even further education.  Becker's work is of its time but his concept of the Ideal pupil continues to be widely used in contemporary labelling studies

Some Quotations from Howard Becker's article

"Many of these children don't realise  the worth of education. They have no desire to improve themselves. And they don't care  much about school and school work as a result. This makes it very difficult to teach them."

" You can throw out an idea and you can see it take hold. The children know what you're talking about and they think about it. Then they come in with projects  and pictures and additional information and it just makes you feel good to see it"

Some of these schools were not for the faint-hearted .

"Teachers report having been bitten , tripped and pushed on the stairs. Another gave an account of a second grader throwing a milk bottle at a teacher and of a  first grader  having such a temper tantrum  that it took the principal and two policemen to get him out of the room". Makes Paul Willis' lads look almost angelic perhaps!


Another  important study which attempted to assess the strength of the self-fulfilling prophesies generated by positive and negative labelling was entitled Pygmalion in the Classroom [1968  R. Rosenthal and L. Jacobson] . The study relates to  all pupils in Grades 1-6 [aged approximately 5-11] in an elementary school  a large American town . These pupils come primarily from " a preponderantly lower class community" although few of the children are "desperately poor" but "the children's lower class status is indicated by cultural impoverishment of language and experience" .[ Quotes from "Pygmalion..."]

These pupils  were given an IQ test at the beginning of the academic year and teachers were incorrectly told that the test [ fictitiously named the Harvard Test of Inflected Ability in an attempt to enhance its legitimacy] was designed  to predict which children were most likely to make rapid intellectual progress in the coming year. All teachers were then given the names of pupils in their class who had allegedly scored in the highest 20% on the test although in reality these children's names had been chosen completely at random and bore no relationship to their test scores.

Toward the end of the academic year all pupils were given the same intelligence test and the new test score data indicated that for the entire school the 20% of pupils said falsely to be capable of faster intellectual progress had indeed made faster progress : their test scores had risen by 12.2% by comparison with the 8.2% improvement for the remaining 80% of pupils. Here according to Robert Rosenthal and Leonora Jacobson was evidence that higher teachers' expectations even when were misguided could nevertheless result in faster pupil progress.

Pygmalion in the Classroom could be seen as an ingenious [although possibly ethically questionable ] study but it soon attracted some criticisms. Thus it was noted that it was only in the lower grades that the children falsely classified as potential fast improvers did improve more rapidly and there were no such effects in the higher grades possibly because these pupils were better known to their teachers who might therefore be unlikely to change their behaviour in response to the provision of IQ data which they might in any case not take very seriously. Furthermore R. Rosenthal and Leonora Jacobson did not actually observe pupil and teacher classroom behaviour and so they could only speculate as to the relationships between the IQ test data, the change or otherwise in teacher behaviour and its effects on subsequent pupils' performances in the later IQ test.

 Click here for the full original paper "Pygmalion in the class room" and click here for short You Tube Video on the study.

Another important analysis of the labelling process was provided in Deviance and Classrooms [1975] by David H. Hargreaves, Stephen R Hestor and Frank K Mellor in which the authors distinguish between three stages of the labelling process; the speculative stage, the elaboration stage and the stabilisation stage. It is claimed that in the speculation stage teachers gradually form opinions about the characteristics of their new pupils on the basis of their appearance, their readiness to accept school rules and discipline, their abilities and enthusiasm for work, their personality, likeability and relationships with other pupils and their overall conformity or deviance.

All of this leads teachers to construct a so-called "working hypothesis" as to the nature of each individual pupil which may nevertheless be either confirmed or modified as the teacher increases hr/his knowledge and understanding of the pupils in the so-called elaboration stage. Finally in the so-called stabilisation stage teachers come to believe that they now fully understand the nature of their pupils and come to interpret their behaviour in terms of their now relatively fixed "stabilised opinions of them so that , for example, poor work by one student might be interpreted as evidence of a fundamental lack of ability and by another as evidence that fundamentally high potential is not currently being fulfilled.

It must be  noted however that whereas in this study the labelling process occurs gradually as teachers increase their understanding of their new pupils, in other studies it occurs very quickly as in R. C. Rist's 1970 study of  an American kindergarten where  pupils were being segregated on the basis of teachers' evaluations of their abilities within as little as eight days.

[R. Rist's full article can be found here and a very useful summary of it can be found here. Although you will not be able to reproduce all of the points made in the summary under examination conditions you might nevertheless find it interesting to read.]

 Interactionists have generally  concluded that teachers [who themselves originated mainly from middle class backgrounds] have often failed to assess their pupils' academic potential objectively and instead have been were very likely to assess students' academic potential in terms of such variables as their appearance, language, social skills and social class background rather than in terms of their real intellectual abilities  in such a way that working class children were often perceived by teachers as being on average less intelligent than middle class children. It followed that where streaming, setting or banding systems were in operation,[ which they usually were in the UK], working class students were more likely to be consigned to lower streams, sets or bands even when in reality they often had very good academic potential.

Then while the mainly middle class students in the higher streams, bands or sets would be encouraged by positive teacher labelling to work hard , mainly working class students in the lower streams , bands or sets would be regularly labelled negatively by teachers   as "dull", "thick" or " a waste of time" [see below]. Labelling theorists have argued that pupils would be likely to respond to positive or negative labels by changing their own perceptions of themselves [their self-images] in a positive or negative direction and that positively labelled students would be encouraged to improve their performance while negative labels would generate reduced self-confidence and/or increased rebellion among many working class students leading to the limited educational achievements . The use of positive and negative labels amounts to the construction of self fulfilling prophecies whereby the labels themselves generate the behaviour and educational outcomes which are predicted or prophesied in the labels themselves.

It was argued also that ethnic minority students and and some female students were likely to be negatively labelled in ways which would subsequently adversely affect their educational performance adversely but critics of labelling theory noted that in some cases pupils would not simply accept passively the negative labels applied to them and as we shall see  in one detailed analysis Peter Woods distinguished between 8 possible responses to their school situation : ingratiation, compliance, opportunism, ritualism, retreatism, colonisation, intransigence and rebellion.


UK Studies of Relationships between Labelling, Streaming, Setting and Banding  and Educational Achievement. 

In the UK interactionists have been especially keen to investigate relationships between labelling theory, streaming, banding and setting and educational achievement.   Most secondary schools [and some primary schools operate systems of streaming, banding or setting in which pupils  are allocated to streams, bands or sets according to the teachers’ perceptions of their abilities in the belief that pupils learn more effectively when they are taught in groups of similar abilities rather than in mixed ability teaching groups.

When pupils first enter Secondary School they are likely to be streamed/setted/banded on the basis of reports from their middle schools. However critics argue that these reports and the resultant allocations of pupils to ability groupings may have been neither accurate nor fair because many teachers operate with a concept of the "ideal pupil" who has primarily middle class characteristics so that working class students are more likely to be assessed reported upon  and allocated  to lower sets not on the basis of their ability or potential but because of their known social background, appearance, behaviour or language style.  Also whereas working class parents may for a variety of reasons be relatively likely to accept the allocation of their children to lower sets in the belief that "teachers know best" middle class parents might be more likely to complain if their children are allocated to lower sets and to pressurise teachers to evaluate their children more positively.

Of course this entire line of argument could be criticised on the grounds that middle school reports are now supplemented by  "more objective"  Key Stage examination data; that Secondary Schools might often reassess new intake pupils' abilities after say one half -term before allocating them to ability groupings and that some Secondary School subjects will in any case  taught in mixed ability groupings. However none of these arguments are necessarily convincing because Key stage examination results may have been influenced by social background factors and negative labelling in middle schools and early reassessments in Secondary Schools are in many case likely to confirm the conclusions of Middle School reports  but this does not mean that either are necessarily fair.

Interactionist theorists have argued that these processes of streaming setting and banding involve the negative and positive labelling respectively of mainly working class pupils in the lower sets and mainly middle class pupils in the higher sets which has adverse consequences for the educational prospects of the lower set pupils. .Hargreaves study of mainly white working class secondary modern school boys in the 1960s demonstrated that low stream pupils were denied academic status within the school and that they therefore tried to regain status among their peers by misbehaviour and unwillingness to work which led to the development of anti-school subcultures in lower streams. Further problems arose because if students were labelled by teachers as "worthless louts" or suchlike, this would encourage more misbehaviour, more teacher criticism and subsequently more misbehaviour. Also, it was possible that "better" teachers were assigned to higher sets and that teacher preparation for lower set students because these students were seen as incapable of real progress. In general terms therefore, lower set students were labelled as failures and the system of setting created the conditions for the self-fulfilling prophecy in that by allocating students to lower streams, the teachers actually created the conditions which ensured failure.

Additional criticisms of setting, banding and streaming were made by Nell Keddie in "Classroom Knowledge" (1970) where she claimed that a supposedly undifferentiated Humanities course was delivered differently according to the sets of the students and that, for example, teachers chose not to teach the more complex, theoretical ideas to mainly working class, lower set students on the not necessarily accurate assumption that these students would not understand them. Obviously this was likely to restrict these students’ progress. Stephen Ball (Beachside Comprehensive 1980) is also critical. He presents evidence that teachers were continuing to label low band students extremely negatively as for example, "a waste of time" while the reverse was true in relation to higher band students. However, he did also raise the strong possibility that even if so-called mixed ability teaching was introduced, there could still be informal setting within individual classes such that this so-called mixed ability teaching would not necessarily overcome the problem of labelling and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Peter Woods: The Divided School 1979

This is a 301 page study which I have attempted to summarise in one page. Unfortunately for examination purpose students would need to make an even more concise summary and should seek advice from their teachers as to how this might be achieved. You might also like to discuss the usefulness or otherwise of this study for the analysis of the current education system.

Peter Woods' The Divided School [1979] is an informative study of a Midlands mixed secondary modern school which is soon  to become a comprehensive school. As such the study is very much of its time  but as with the others studies mentioned above it nevertheless offers insights which continue to be relevant 40 years on. In most Sociology textbooks  this study is often referenced in relation to the importance of labelling theory  and I shall concentrate on this aspect of the study here. However the study also has important implications for the study of pupil subcultures.

Most of the pupils come from a working class background although a significant minority  come from the lower middle class and a few from senior professional backgrounds. In the 4th year  a rigid system of streaming is in place with  pupils allocated either to the GCE O level stream [4A], the CSE stream [4B] or the non-examination stream [4C]. The study indicates that working class pupils [and their parents] generally show less interest in applying for examination courses and are less likely to be allocated to the examination streams  and also that pupils' responses to their educational situation are  conditioned very much both by their social class background  and by the streaming system operative in the school. The streaming system itself  impacts heavily on pupils' attitudes and behaviour with positive attitudes to learning much more prevalent in the higher streams. Also despite the overall affability of the pupils, conflicts  between pupils and teachers are much more likely to occur in the lower streams . Many pupils in the lower streams experience their education as stupefyingly boring  and irrelevant to their needs and the perceived authoritarianism of the school  conflicts with the pupils' perceptions of themselves  as  fee agents as emphasised within the burgeoning teenage culture of the 1970s.

In order to analyse pupil responses  Peter Woods adopts framework which first distinguishes between the official goals of the school and the official means of achieving them  Both goals and means are discussed in some detail but it is recognised that official goals include the provision of a good education  as measured by examination results as well as more diffuse goals involving education for personal development and good citizenship and that these goals are to be achieved via means involving teaching practices which will often be quite formal but will vary in their formality from teacher to teacher.

Peter Woods notes that this framework derives to some extent from modification of the theories of R.K. Merton which students if crime and deviance will recognise. He then  argues that the combination of the external effects of class structure and the internal effects of the streaming system may provoke  a variety broad of responses to these official goals and means from different pupils but that individual pupils may also exhibit mixed responses and  respond differently at different times and towards different teachers and in different situations.  I have summarised Peter Woods' classification of possible student responses in the following table.

The important conclusions of this study include the following.

  • Students may well respond positively to allocation to higher streams but this does not necessarily mean that tey fully accept the official goals and means of the school.
  • Students may well respond negatively to their allocation to lower streams but there are various degrees of negativity. However despite their variation all of these forms of negativity seem likely to impinge adversely on the pupil's educational prospects.
  • There is now far greater focus than in the 1970s  on examination pass rates which leads one to expect that teachers are no longer willing to tolerate colonization among a large proportion of pupils and some pupils may recognise the need to restrain their preference for colonisation in recognition of the increased importance of academic qualifications as apre-requisite for future secure employment.

 Topic for discussion: How useful is Peter Wood's study for the analysis of the current education system?


Interactionism, Gender and Educational Achievement

Interactionist theorists have also investigated relationships between gender and educational achievement, Female pupils have for many years outperformed male pupils in 16+ examinations but it is only in the last 10 years or so that they have overtaken males at Advanced Level and Degree level although there remain important gender differences in optional subject choice at GCSE , Advanced and Degree levels. It has been claimed that in the 1960s and 1970s traditionally minded teachers were less likely to encourage girls to follow professional careers  which may have persuaded many intelligent girls to leave school at age 16.For example, Michelle Stanworth (1983) in a study of a Further Education College suggested that both male and female teachers had stereotypical views about students’ future career prospects; were less likely to remember quiet girls names; asked more questions of boys; that boys were more likely to join in discussions. Overall, "the interaction in the classroom seemed to disadvantage girls considerably and both teachers and students played a part in this."

However Sue Sharpe has shown that young female attitudes to employment have changed and their educational achievements have improved and it is quite possible nowadays that females are more likely than males to be positively labelled by their teachers with overall beneficial effects for females but disadvantageous effects for males as has been shown in a recent study by Becky Francis. Yet it is also important to remember that female educational achievements vary very considerably according to their social class and ethnicity and that not all female pupils may experience positive labelling.

A detailed technical point

It is perhaps well known that it is Chinese girls who achieve the best examination results at GCSE Level and one might expect there fore that it would be Chinese girls who are most likely to benefit from the effects of positive labelling in schools . However  in a recent[2008]  detailed academic study Louise Archer suggests  that this is not the case and that "the normalised "ideal pupil" emerges as the dominant male, White, middle class Western subject. " Although Advanced Level Sociology students need not familiarise themselves with the details of this highly technical article they may scroll down to page 12 of the article [which is p101 of the journal] 101 and a table illustrating this conclusion  which may provoke some class discussion.


 Interactionism, Ethnicity and Educational Achievement

Patterns of educational achievement among ethnic minority pupils are complex and it is certainly true that Chinese and Indian -Origin students out perform white students educationally. There are concerns, however, that Afro-Caribbean boys and to some extent Pakistani and Bangladeshi students are under-performing in general and that Afro-Caribbean origin boys are especially likely to be excluded from school. Several studies suggest that conscious or unconscious teacher racism and negative labelling may affect some ethnic minority pupils adversely but also that many teachers try their best to help ethnic minority students and that in any case ethnic minority  students certainly do not necessarily accept  negative labels when they are applied to them.

In his study  "How the West Indian child is made educationally subnormal in the British school system: the scandal of the Black child in schools in Britain" [1971] Bernard Coard has argued very powerfully that the UK education system makes Black children become educationally subnormal by making them feel inferior in every way . They are told that their accent and language are inferior; white is associated with good and black with bad; white culture is celebrated while black culture is ignored; pupil racism is widespread and black pupils are adversely affected by labelling, streaming and self-fulfilling prophecies .

It has been claimed that Bernard Coard did not support these criticisms of the  UK education system with detailed empirical data but he did nevertheless succeed in articulating very powerfully the concerns of the Black community and other writers have provided strong support for  his general conclusions in their much more detailed studies. Thus in Cecile Wright's research in primary schools [1992] it is suggested that teachers often failed to involve Asian pupils sufficiently in class discussion because of an inaccurate assumption that these students had poor language skills and that they also undervalued Asian culture in some respects. However, teachers also had higher expectations of Asian origin than of Afro-Caribbean origin pupils.

Some studies indicated that although negative labels were often applied the students , far from passively accepting these negative labels tried to develop strategies which would enable them to make progress despite the negative labels applied although it does seem likely that some pupils continued to be adversely affected by the  effects of negative labelling.

Heidi Mirza's 1992 study of black and white secondary school pupils aged 15-19 suggested that although there was evidence of teacher racism and negative labelling this did not undermine  the self-esteem of the pupils. There were also many white teachers who genuinely wanted to help their black students but this help was sometimes misguided and the students actually received more effective help from black teachers. In some cases although the pupils were keen to do well, Mirza believed that they were held back because of poor relationships even with well meaning white teachers.


Heidi Mirza :Young, Female and Black [1992] Some additional detail

Heidi Mirza's study is located in two South London Comprehensive schools: one a coeducational Catholic School  and the other a single sex Church of England school It focuses especially on 62 black girls aged 13-19 and as will be seen the religious dimensions of these schools had important implications for the conclusions of the study. Among the key conclusions are the following.

  • There was no evidence that the young black women ion the study had negative self-images as a result of being black. So much for doll studies!
  • There was also no evidence that the activities of teachers undermined the  the self -esteem of the black students.
  • However it was highly likely that the activities of the teachers did undermine  the black students' educational prospects in various ways as will be indicated below
  • Heidi Mirza argues that the teachers in the study could reasonably be classified into 5 groups: "the overt racists[33%" "the Christians" [ note the religious character of the school];" the crusaders[2%]"; "the liberal chauvinists[25%]]" and the black teachers [4 teachers in total]. By implication about 40% of the teachers were Christians or unclassifiable.
  • Heidi Mirza gives several examples of grossly racist attitudes and behaviour among teachers in the study. In the words of one History teacher "African history is so boring...the discussion of slavery is monotonous in school has no bearing on anything."
  • The "Christians" are presented as  an essentially well -meaning group who believed that broadly speaking the schools treated all pupils equally irrespective of their ethnicity so that the specifically anti-racist policies supported by the then ILEA were actually likely to promote ethnic tensions where none previously existed. Heidi Mirza suggests that this meant that the real incidence of racism within the schools remained unaddressed with negative consequences for the prospects of ethnic minority pupils.
  • The "liberal chauvinists" are presented as believing that they had the best interests of the black pupils at heart but as in reality making inaccurate assumptions about the attitudes and values of the black community. In particular these teachers often argued that black pupils, encouraged by their parents, actually had unrealistic, over-ambitious expectations which it was the teachers' duty to curtail in order to prevent subsequent disappointment. Clearly this apparently well meaning approach was likely to undermine ambitions which were both high and realistic.
  • There were a small number of "crusaders" who believed that school practices were infused with racism and that the anti-racist policies of the then ILEA  should be strongly supported. These teachers were generally unpopular with the other teachers and unfortunately their anti-racist teaching initiatives were often seen by the black pupils as unrealistic and impractical.
  • Finally there were a small number of black teachers who did not support radical initiatives but aimed to help black pupils as much as they could in practical ways within the existing school environments . The black pupils felt that these black teachers were supportive but not positively biased toward black rather than white pupils.Heidi Mrza concludes "On the whole the black teachers were more in tune with the needs of their black female pupils offering a more postive solution to the education of the black child.".

Mac An Ghaill[1992] investigated the experiences of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin students in Further Education. All of the students were conscious of racism in UK society generally but disagreed about the extent of racism in the education system. Students did not necessarily allow racism and negative labelling to affect them adversely. Instead they adopted various survival strategies to improve their prospects: survival through accommodation, making friendships with helpful teachers and keeping out of trouble.

In a significant study of two London Comprehensive schools, Gilbourn and Youdell[2000] argued that ethnic minority students were disadvantaged in several respects. There were few cases of open teacher racism and many teachers were committed to helping ethnic minority students but the authors argued that the relative failure of Afro-Caribbean students  could be explained by the facts that when all students were tested on entry to the schools , black students were more likely to be consigned  to lower sets and to remain there for the rest of their school careers, which among other things meant that they were most likely to be entered for lower tier GCSE examinations. Then , due to a system of so-called educational triage, teachers concentrated their attention firstly on borderline cases who might gain 5 A*-C GCSEs, secondly on high achievers and only minimally on students [who were often black] who  were considered unlikely to gain A*-C passes. It could therefore be argued that the educational achievements of black students were adversely affected by a combination of institutional racism and negative  expectations of individual teachers.


More Recent Studies: Mike O'Donnell and Sue Sharpe and Diane Reay

In relation to the early studies of streaming/banding, labelling and self -fulfilling prophecies emphasised by sociologists such as Hargreaves , Lacey and Ball, O'Donnell and Sharpe suggest that their importance as factors explaining social class differences in educational achievement may be smaller nowadays by comparison with when the original studies were undertaken. In their study entitled Uncertain Masculinities [2000] O’Donnell and Sharpe interviewed senior teachers who emphasised that  they were committed to policies of equal educational opportunities and that they were very  familiar with the potentially adverse consequences for students of negative labelling.

These senior teachers suggested that a school ethos existed whereby any teachers who did engage in such negative labelling could expect criticism from their peers and censure and possible disciplinary action from senior teachers. Equally importantly the students felt that on balance they were treated fairly and respectfully by their teachers while admitting that a disruptive minority of students could still be heavily criticised by teachers.

O' Donnell and Sharpe suggest therefore  that the findings of much earlier studies should therefore not simply be accepted as evidence of what is currently happening in secondary schools and  teachers may on balance nowadays be less likely to label students negatively especially because the teachers themselves are being more closely evaluated in terms of their students' examination grades which are unlikely to be enhanced by negative labelling. However the authors themselves admit that their conclusions have been formed on the basis of interviews with teachers and pupils and that observational studies might still point to the existence of negative labelling much as in the earlier studies and other theorists are certain that this is still the case.

In her 2006 study  Diane Reay drew the following main conclusions from studies  in which she and colleagues used a combination of classroom observations and interviews with both pupils and teachers

  1. Setting processes continue to operate to the disadvantage of working class students.
  2. Teachers may also use informal "ability" groupings within formally mixed ability classes.
  3. Teachers are still prone to label working class pupils negatively such that as one pupil expressed it "Some teachers are a bit snobby and some teachers act as if a child is they think you're dumb" while middle class pupils often receive preferential treatment.
  4. Some teachers are well informed sociologically and show sympathetic concern for working class students  but others do not and also demonstrate ill-informed prejudicial views of working class parents. "I'm afraid some parents are just pig ignorant" as on e teacher delightfully put it.
  5. Nevertheless external class cultural factors also influence pupils' attitudes to school. Diane Reay found that peer pressure among many working class boys irrespective of their ethnicity was a significant factor inhibiting their educational achievement and in this respect Dianne Reay found strong continuities with the attitudes expressed by Paul Willis "lads" in 1977.
  6. When asked: If you had a choice what would you choose to learn?  students responded as follows : Jamie: "Nothing". George :" Nothing". Andy: "No idea". Paul: "Definitely nothing." [However insightful as these responses were we should also have to ask whether they reflected pupils' real views  and , if they did, whether these views were typical of working class boys in general.]

Diane Reay's study suggests that Mike O'Donnell's and Sue Sharpe's study may well have been over-optimistic  I

Interactionist theories clearly help to explain the relative educational underachievement achievement of some working class, ethnic minority and female students but they have also been subjected to some criticisms. They are often supported by small scale studies , which although they may embody high levels of validity, may be lacking in reliability and representativeness; in several , but not all cases they present a rather passive view of pupils who are assumed to accept negative labels in ways which undermine their educational prospects and they may suggest that middle class teachers are especially likely to label working class pupils negatively which is not always the case..

Also although interactionist theorists are aware that factors external to the school impact significantly on educational attainment it has been argued that these theorists  understate the importance of factors external to the school as determinants of educational success or failure.. Thus, sociologists have pointed out that many working class and ethnic minority students may face cultural disadvantages leading to lack of educational ambition and that girls may have been socialised mainly by out of school factors to see their futures mainly as housewives and mothers rather than in terms of careers although important changes  in female attitudes to education and employment may be underway . These theories can also be criticised very severely but their existence does suggest that labelling and other factors operating within the school are not the only explanations of differential educational achievement.

Perhaps more important are the material disadvantages that working class boys and girls and many ethnic minority students (who are disproportionately more likely to be working class) may face. Thus materially disadvantaged students may have poor diets; they may lack energy and be prone to illness and absence; they may be forced to look after sick siblings because parents are unable to take time off work; they may not have a quiet room for study; they may be unable to afford books, personal computers, additional private tuition, trips abroad and they may be forced to take part time employment, not as an interesting option which can be ended once important examinations approach but in order to contribute financially to their own upkeep.

 It is true that labelling  processes are important determinants of educational achievement as is shown in interactionist studies. However, these studies have weaknesses as well as strength and factors outside of school, cultural and material, also help to explain social class, gender and ethnic differences in educational achievement.


On the Interaction of Internal and External Factors

It is clear in any case that internal and external factors interact in various ways to influence educational achievement. This may be illustrated as follows in the case of social class differences in educational achievement

Also click here for a very useful podcast from Kate Flatley on interaction of external and internal factors.

  1. The early subcultural theories of Hyman, Sugarman, and Douglas suggested that, in comparison to middle class parents,  working class parents gave less attention to their children's education because they were subject to fatalism, a strong present time orientation and an unwillingness to defer gratification all of which meant that they were unlikely to plan for their own or their children's longer term futures. Insofar as these theories are accurate they may inhibit working class educational progress which may mean that they are more likely to be allocated to low streams with further adverse consequences for their education. However later theorists have called these ideas into question , claimed that nowadays social class differences in attitudes to education are more limited and that social class differences in educational achievement can be better explained in terms of social class differences in the possession of cultural. economic and social capital. However insofar as teachers believed these earlier theories this may have persuaded them to label middle class and working class pupils positively and negatively respectively
  2. Bourdieu emphasised that middle class pupils were more likely to possess the kinds of cultural capital  which would facilitate educational success. Here it is possible that teachers interpret the possession of socially determined cultural capital  as evidence of biologically determined higher intelligence which increases the likelihood that working class pupils will be negatively but inaccurately labelled and consigned to lower sets and streams for invalid reasons.
  3. Bernstein argued that working class and middle class pupils were likely to operate with restricted and elaborated language codes respectively  and middle class students' possession of the elaborated code may mean that they can more easily understand school text books and follow teachers' language which is also more likely to use the elaborated code.  Although Bernstein's theories have been called into question by other theorists [e.g .William Labov]  teachers might well label pupils in terms of their fluency or otherwise in the elaborated code which they mistakenly take to be evidence of higher intelligence.
  4. In some cases teachers might label working class students negatively on the basis of their dress, appearance, demeanour or behaviour none of which necessarily reflect their academic potential. Working class parents may not be able to afford new school uniforms on  a regular basis; working class parents may find it difficult to interact with middle class teachers; and their possibly  boisterous behaviour is not necessarily evidence of lack of intelligence.
  5. Working class students educational attainments may be restricted due to adverse material circumstances which mean they may be more often ill and therefore absent from school and more likely to be  to be tired at school. They  may not have a quiet room for study or  a home computer which means that they are unavble to complete homework effectively.. Such factors  mean that these working class students are more likely to be allocated to low streams which may have further adverse consequences for their progress.
  6. It is also the case that if pupils are negatively labelled in school this may help to exacerbate already existing social class differences in cultural circumstances Thus , for example, if a working class child should fail the 11+ or be placed in lower sets  or receive negative school reports  s/he may well be demoralised but the working class parents  may also come to believe that their child's academic abilities are limited and they may therefore be discouraged from encouraging their child to persevere at school and/or from spending money on educational resources for their child.. Conversely if a middle class child is negatively assessed in any way middle class parents may be less likely to take these negative assessments at face value, may question the competences of the child's teachers  and /or employ private tutors to offset the child's negative performance.
  7. There are substantial variations in the examination results achieved by different comprehensive schools  and it has been shown that  middle class parents are able to use their greater resources of cultural, social and economic capital to secure entry for their children to more successful schools in ways not available  to many working class pupils.. Children who gain access  to the more successful schools may be exposed  to a more optimistic school culture  which may encourage both pupils and parents to   believe that educational success is possible. The culture of the successful school is likely to reinforce an achievement- oriented middle class culture  but it may also increase the ambitions of working class pupils and their parents. Entrance to a less successful school may have the reverse effects. Thus cultural, social and economic capital affect school choice but school choice may also influence cultural attitudes and values. [For illustrative purposes and on a brief autobiographical note when I was 10 years old neither I nor my parents would have dreamed that 3 years later they  would be buying me a Latin dictionary for Xmas. Thanks Mr Browne  and thanks mum and dad!]

Clearly you will also be discussing with your teachers the interaction of external and internal factors as influences on ethnic and gender differences in educational achievement.

Some additional links which are mainly for my own use. There is no need for Advanced Level students to follow up these links

Click here for Guardian coverage and here for BBC coverage of Sutton Trust Report and here for the full report on University application process aspects of which may disadvantage poorer on setting with links to important academic paperstudents. December 2017

Click here for detailed coverage of Pygmalion in the Classroom November 2017

Click here for detailed article by Professor Becky Francis and colleagues: Ability Grouping as Self-fulfilling Prophecy?   October 2017

Click here for article By Mary- Claire Travers on streaming and white working class pupils  July 2017****

Click here for detailed article by Amelia Hempel Jorgensen  June 2017

Click here for a detailed paper on streaming, labelling and Mathematics teaching by Dr. R Marks. August 2017

Click here for Guardian coverage of late 1990s research from London University Institute of Education in support of mixed ability teaching.

Click here for a recent Guardian article on a school which colour codes pupils by ability: purple ties for the gifted and talented.

Click here for a Guardian article on a successful academy using "traditional methods"  in a socially disadvantaged area.

Click here for an exceptional paper by Diane Reay published in 2006. The paper is contains detailed theoretical arguments but you could read it perhaps with a little guidance from your teachers and use some of the materials to improve my essay. This would be a very useful exercise for you in my opinion [for what it is worth]

 Click here and here for  BBC items on age and streaming  March 2013

Click here for a recent [July 2nd 2013] Guardian article which quotes Chief Inspector of Schools Michael Wilshaw's remarks that the labelling of poor pupils remains widespread.  July 3rd 2013