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December 27, 2008 / C H Thompson

Willis anti-school subculture

The effects of being placed in lower bands/streams was researched by Paul Lacey (1970) in his study of Hightown secondary_3002Grammar School which sowed how streaming can lead to the formation of anti-school subcultures. Paul Willis (1997) also researched the effects of streaming/banding in his book ‘Learning to Labour’.

Paul Willis’ study is still relevant today as there’s a persistence of counter school cultures in contemporary societies despite the ‘drying-up’ of manual labouring jobs. You only have to think of the number of NEETS and the increasing number of white working-class males failing school.

Paul Willis’ ‘Learning to Labour’ is a significant study for two reasons. Firstly his research followed a group of lads in the 1970s that rejected school and all its values and instead focused on leaving school as soon as they could.

In the meantime while they did attend school they spent most of their time trying to disrupt or avoid lessons or just generally messing about in order to shake themselves free of any control the school could impose on them.

Willis argued these lads had consciously developed an anti-school or counter school subculture. By being in a subculture the bottom-stream pupils can raise their self-esteem by gaining status in front of their peers.

Disrupting lessons, playing up to teachers and breaking as many rules as they can is their way of getting back at the system which has labelled them as failures.

The second important point with Willis’s work is it helps address some of the weakness in Marxist approaches to education. Althusser and Bowles and Ginitis argue schools prepare children for work, as if they’re docile beings simply doing as they’re told and being processed for the ‘long shadow of work’. Willis (a neo-Marxist) points out that these ‘lads’ consciously turn away from school and seek semi-skilled or unskilled work rather than being ‘forced’ into it as traditional Marxists suggest.

In contrast to the conventional sociological view of the time that saw the education system ‘failing’ working class youth, Willis argued that the lads he observed were deliberately failing themselves in recognition of the inevitable manual working future that awaited them. They were growing up in working class districts and knew no matter what teachers told them they would end up having working class jobs so with this fatalism in their minds they thought they might as well ‘enjoy’ school!

The book was ground breaking in its day because it was the first major educational study to link culture and social action to wider structural processes. While most sociological studies of the 1960s, 70s and 80s saw educational failures as passive victims of socialisation, social deprivation or unfavourable labelling by the school, Willis’ work painted a different picture of some working class children actively failing themselves by developing cultures of resistance in opposition to schooling.

Willis showed that the education system was failing to produce ideal compliant workers for the capitalist system. Rather the lads’ counter school culture contained some perceptive insights into the nature of capitalism for workers.

The lads recognise that there are no equal opportunities under capitalism and no matter how hard they work their chances of success remain far lower than those of the middle class pupils. They can see through the careers advice given at school and know that even if they were to work really hard the chances of getting a professional or desk job are very low.

There is a recognition that individual effort is likely to achieve little in terms of future prospects and a strong investment in a male working class peer group. Paul Willis argues there’s a persistence of counter school cultures in contemporary societies in spite of the drying up of manual labouring jobs you only have to think of the number of NEETS and the increasing number of white working-class males failing school.

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