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

Document last edited: 03/07/2013

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

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 for an item on Positive Teacher Labelling from the Podology Site

 Click here and here for  BBC items on age and streaming [Link added 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. [Link added July 3rd 2013]


[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.

    • 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 and S. Ball


  • 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


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


  • Conclusion

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.

Interactionist sociologists are so-called because they 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.

One 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.

 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.

One 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 some further discussion of Pygmalion in the class room.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

M. 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.

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 here 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 stupid...like 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  It does appear likely that labelling theories do provide part of the explanation for social class, gender and ethnic inequalities of educational achievement. However the studies supporting labelling theory  have also been criticised on the methodological grounds that they may be based upon small and therefore not necessarily representative samples; that researchers' reliance on observational methods may undermine the studies' reliability and validity and that they sometimes [but not always] present a rather passive description of the individual who is assumed to accept the labels applied to him/her with little criticism.

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.