Assess the view that pupil subcultures are the key to understanding educational underachievement.

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Assess the view that pupil subcultures are the key to understanding educational underachievement.
Claire Jones
Since education was made compulsory for all children up to 10 years old in 1880, there have been
attempts to provide equal opportunities for all. The tripartite system from 1944 aimed to give every
child the same chance regardless of wealth, and the comprehensive system went a step further and
tried to create an equal opportunity for each child without judging their intelligence at age 11. Despite
these efforts though, there are still some groups who do not achieve as highly in the education system
as others. The main differences in achievement come from class, with the working class consistently
doing worst, but there are also differences in gender and ethnicity. Boys achieve less in school than
girls, and Pakistani and Bangladeshi children also do worse than their white and Indian peers. Few
sociologists believe that these groups are simply less intelligent than the others instead, it has been
argued that there are a number of factors that contribute to educational underachievement. One of
these is the pupil subculture, a type of grouping found in every school. Pupil subcultures are groups of
pupils, which form in schools, each with their own norms and values, and behaviour to accompany
these. Pupil subcultures reflect the attitudes of the young people within them, and pupils in each
subculture often gain similar levels of achievement in school, so they are crucial to understanding the
underachievement found in particular social and ethnic groups.
In 1967, Hargreaves studied a secondary modern school to see how pupil subcultures were
formed. He found that there were two distinct groups formed in the school: those who conformed and
the nonconformist delinquents. He said that pupil subcultures were formed because of the way that
pupils were streamed in the school. When they entered a secondary modern school, pupils already
carried one label of failure, because they had failed the 11+ exam required to attend a grammar
school. Of those who did go to the secondary modern, the children who behaved badly were put in the
lower streams to be taught in, and this gave them a double negative label. They were labelled as
failures both because of the 11+ exam and because they had been put in the lowest stream.
According to Hargreaves, pupils in this position needed to find ways to protect their self worth against
such negative labels, and so they sought out other people in the same situation as them, and banded
together to form a subculture. In this group, they were rewarded with praise for breaking the school
rules and therefore formed an antischool subculture. This is important for explaining
underachievement, because in a subculture like this that rejects the values of the school, pupils will
also reject the ethos of hard work expected by a school, and therefore will misbehave in lessons and
avoid homework and so underachieve. However, Hargreaves' research does not show that subcultures
in themselves are the most important reason for underachievement, because it highlights the fact that
the way schools are organised, such as teaching children in streams, has an effect on
underachievement, and part of this is the formation of subcultures. In the same way, it emphasises the
affect of labelling on underachievement.
While Hargreaves' study is useful for explaining some of the reasons for the formation of
subcultures and how this leads to underachievement, it has been criticised for being overly simplistic.
Wood's study into a rural school in the Midlands shows a more detailed picture of how students adapt
to school, and the groups that they form because of this. He said that each student will need to deal
with each of the two main elements of education. They will either accept or reject the goal of
academic success which is promoted by the school, and they will accept or reject the authority which
sets standards of behaviour in the school. Their response to these two things will cause pupils to fall in
to one of 8 categories of adaptation. The 8 ways to adapt that Woods laid out are: ingratiation,
compliance, opportunism, ritualist, retreatist, colonisation, intransigence, and rebellion. These
subcultures identified by Woods have an impact on understanding educational underachievement
because he also noted that most middle class pupils adapted to school in the most conformist ways
and it is the middle class who achieve higher. The working class pupils were most likely to reject the
goal of academic success and/or the authority in school, which would cause them to underachieve.
However, Woods' explanation has also been criticised for lacking complexity. As Hammersley and

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Turner commented, there may be more than one set of values within the management of a school, and
pupils may accept some of these and reject others. Woods does not provide an explanation for why
working class pupils choose to reject these values, so while observing pupil subcultures is useful for
explaining and describing the situation, it seems that there is more to understanding
underachievement than simply these.…read more

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Some of these other factors come from wider
society, and some come from within a school. For example, the underachievement of some ethnic
groups as well as the working class can be linked to the material deprivation which the majority of
families from those groups experience. Material deprivation can lead to difficulties for school pupils
such as ill health, lack of school equipment, cramped housing with few educationally stimulating
resources, and pressure from parents to get a part time job to help family income.…read more


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