Labelling Theory (Education)

By Saul Mcleod, PhD | Published Feb 17, 2022


  • It is argued that teachers often classify (type) and label working class students as non-academic. However, these labels are often based not on objective measures of ability, but on how well the student matched up to their stereotype of an “academic student”. Consequently, labelling is more to do with the teacher’s prejudices than the student’s actual ability
  • Howard Becker outlines how teachers tend to evaluate and label students in terms of their image of an “ideal pupil”. He found that teachers tend to perceive students from middle-class backgrounds as closest to this ideal and working class students as further away – regardless of actual ability.
  • Cicourel and Kitsuse (1963) interviewed counsellors in an American High School, finding that middle-class students were more likely to be placed on higher-level courses. They found that the counsellors’ classifications of students’ ability and potential were based on a whole range of non-academic factors, such as appearance and demeanour.
  • Rist found that as early as the 8th day of kindergarten, children had been grouped into “ability” and sat at different tables. However, when the children were tested, it was found that they were actually grouped according to how well they conformed to the teacher’s own middle-class standards.

The Process of Label Formation (Speculation, Elaboration, Stabilization)

Hargreaves et. al. (1975), in their classic book Deviance in Classrooms, reported a study in which they interviewed teachers and observed classrooms, examining the process through which teachers “got to know” new students.

The researchers highlight three stages through which labels evolve:

  • During the speculation stage, “first impressions” are made on the basis of things like the students appearance, ability and enthusiasm and their relationship with other students. Teachers were observed to make a working hypothesis about the student.
  • These hypotheses are either confirmed or contradicted during the elaboration stage.
  • Finally, the label is stabilised and the teacher believes that they fully understand the student. At this point, the teacher believes he or she can make sense of the student’s behaviour entirely in reference to the label.

Pupil Adaptations

In order to address the problem of assuming that pupils automatically “take on” labels, Peter Woods (1979) gives a more complex account of student responses to schools.

In his study of Lowfields – a secondary modern in a rural area of the Midlands – he outlines a range of different responses that students were observed to have made to school. He called these reactions pupil adaptations.

Some students, for example, attempt to ingratiate themselves with teachers (i.e. become “teachers pets”), others actively rebel whilst others simply go through the motions of the school day in order to stay out of trouble. (Woods identifies a total of 8 different types of pupil adaptation).

  • Ingratiation – Pupils who are eager to please teachers and have very favourable attitudes towards school. Conformist pro-school.
  • Compliance – Pupils who accept school rules and discipline, and see school as a useful way to gain qualifications, but who don’t have a wholly positive or negative attitude towards school. This is typical of first year students.
  • Opportunism – Pupils who fluctuate between seeking approval of teachers and form their peer groups.
  • Ritualism– Pupils who go through the motions of attending school but withiout great engagement or enthusiasm.
  • Retreatism – Pupils who are indifferent to school values and exam success- messing about in class and daydreaming are common, but such students do not want to challenge the authority of the school.
  • Colonization – Pupils who try to get away with as much as possible. Such students may express hostility to the school but will still try to avoid getting into trouble. More common in the later years of schooling.
  • Intransigence – troublemakers who are indifferent to school and who aren’t that bothered about conformity.
  • Rebellion – the goals of schools are rejected and pupils devote their efforts to achieving deviant goals.

This theory shows that pupil responses to schools are not straightforward, and there is an element of negotiation involved in classroom interaction – we must remember that students also have freewill and can chose to reject a label, or work extra hard to disprove it.

Pupil Subcultures

A pupil subculture is a group of pupils who share similar values and behaviour patterns. Pupil subcultures often emerge as a response to the way pupils have been labelled and in particular as a reaction to streaming.

Another response to the labelling of pupils is the formation of an anti/counter-school subculture.

Hargreaves (1976) observed that those who had been labelled as “troublemakers” were faced with being defined as “failures” on a number of different ways:

  • They had failed to get into grammar schools
  • They had been allocated to a low stream in their school
  • Within this stream, they had been selected as the lowest of the low and labelled as “worthless louts”

This gave them the impression that they were unable to achieve high status within the school In order to preserve their self-esteem and positive self-concept, those students labelled as failures tended to seek each other out and form counter-school subcultures.

Within these groups, high status was awarded to students who broke the school rules as frequently as possible. As these subcultures reject the school values, they reject academic success as a goal. Consequently, they lead students to lower attainment within schools.

Setting and Streaming

One of the consequences of labelling and teacher prejudice is that working class students tend to be overrepresented in low streams and sets. In Beachside Comprehensive, Stephen Ball examines the impact of streaming within a comprehensive school.

At Beachside, students were divided into three “bands”, based on information from their primary schools. Band one was supposed to contain the most able students and band three the least able.

However, Ball (1981) found that the most influential factor on being assigned to band one was not ability, but whether the students father with a non-manual worker. Ball argues that the teacher’s expectations of the different bands led to the behaviour of students within them to change.

When the pupils first arrived at the school, Ball observed that most were conformist and eager – however their behaviour quickly diverged. In particular, band two were expected by teachers to be the most difficult to work with.

According to Ball, this led to a progressive deterioration in the behaviour of most band two pupils, which was reflected in higher levels of absence, more non-conformist behaviour and a lack of effort being put into homework – which of course had a negative impact on attainment.

In addition, Ball points out that different expectations of the bands led to each being taught in a slightly different way and encouraged to take a different educational path.

  • Band one pupils were warmed up and encouraged to have high aspirations and follow academic O-Level subjects.
  • In contrast, band two pupils were cooled down and directed towards more practical subjects and towards CSE exams.

Consequently band two pupils were less likely to take O Levels, to stay on in school after the age of 16, or to take A-Levels.

Ball admits that not all band two children failed, some were able to overcome the negative effects of streaming.

However there is a strong correlation between educational success and banding, and between banding and social class. Ball claims that “working class pupils tend to percolate downwards in the processes of academic and behavioural differentiation”.

Criticism of Labelling Theory

Labelling theory has been accused of determinism. Assumes that pupils who are labelled have no choice but to fulfil the prophecy and will inevitably fail.

If we are to believe the explanation, all it would take for to get everyone an A-grade in sociology would be for me to label you all as incredibly bright. Consequently, we must be cautious about over simplifying labelling as an explanation of differential achievement, and recognise that the consequences of labelling can range.

Studies such as Mary Fuller’s (1984) show that this isn’t always true. Fuller studied the reactions of working class black girls to negative labelling. She found that that, rather than simply living out their labels, the girls worked harder to disprove the label.

Roger Dale (1973) argues that labelling theory concentrates too heavily on small-scale interaction. Consequently, they fail to address wider social issues, such as where do ideas such as the “ideal pupil” come from in the first place.

Students are likely to have many different teachers, some of whom might be sympathetic to working class behaviour and attitudes. There is no explanation of why the negative labels of some teachers have more influence.

Marxists also criticise labelling theory for ignoring the wider structures of power within which labelling takes place. Labelling theory tends to blame teachers for labelling pupils, but fails to explain why they do so. Marxists argue that labels are not merely the result of teachers’ individual prejudice, but stem from the fact that teachers work ina system that reproduces class divisions.

About the Author

Saul Mcleod is a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has recently worked as a psychology teaching assistant for The University of Manchester, Division of Neuroscience & Experimental Psychology

He previously worked for Wigan and Leigh College, where he was a psychology lecturer for ten years, primarily teaching A-level psychology and sociology.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Mcleod, S. (2022, Feb 17). Labelling theory (education). Simply Sociology.

APA Style References

Ball, S. J. (1981). Beachside comprehensive: A case-study of secondary schooling. Cup Archive.

Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. London: Free Press of Glencoe.

Chriss, J. J. (2018). Social control: History of the concept. The handbook of social control, 7-22.

Dale, R. (1973). Phenomenological perspectives and the sociology of the school. Educational Review, 25(3), 175-189.

Hargreaves, D. H., Hester, S. K., & Mellor, F. (1975). Deviance in Classrooms.

Fuller, M. (1984). Black girls in a comprehensive school. Life in School: The sociology of pupil culture.

Rist, R. C. (2000). Student social class and teacher expectations: The self-fulfilling prophecy in ghetto education. Harvard Education Review, 70(3), 1-46.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The urban review, 3(1), 16-20.