Numerous sociologists have analysed streaming and banding in schools. In particular, they were keen to examine the criteria used by schools that used banding and streaming.


Stephen Ball examined the process of banding at Beachside School in 1981. At Beachside a system of banding was introduced for first-year pupils. Pupils were placed in one of three bands on the basis of information supplied by their primary schools. The first band contained the most able students and the third the least able. However, Ball found that factors other than academic criteria were influential in determining the bands in which the children were placed. In particular for pupils of similar measured ability, those whose fathers were non-manual workers had the greatest choice of being places in the top band. He observed that most pupils were conformist and eager when they first entered the school, but gradually the behaviour of the children began to diverge.


Nell Keddie looked at the operation of streaming in a single subject in a large London comprehensive. As well as looking at classification and evaluation of students, she also studied the ways in which knowledge was evaluated and classified. She tried to work out the criteria used by teachers to categorize and evaluate classroom knowledge. She discovered that knowledge defined by teachers as appropriate to the particular course was considered worthwhile; knowledge from the student’s experience which did not fit this definition was considered of little consequence. Knowledge presented in an abstract and general form was considered superior to particular pieces of concrete information. The knowledge made available to students depended on the teacher’s assessment of their ability to handle it, thus those students who were defined as bright were given greater access to highly valued knowledge. She concluded that classification and evaluations of both pupils and knowledge are socially constructed in interaction situations.


Ball and Keddie came to the conclusion that from an interactionist point of view, pupils experience school in different ways. They are treated differently by their teachers, given different labels, and often placed in different bands or streams. The pupils attach different meanings to their education and find a variety of ways to relate to their experience. Schools usually lay down a set of standards and indicate to their pupils how they are expected to behave. However, not all students are able and willing to conform to the image of the ideal student held by teachers. If they fail to do so, pupils may well form their own subcultures which reject some of the values of the school.


As early as 1967, David Hargreaves researched labelling in secondary modern schools. In an early study of a secondary modern school, Hargreaves (1967) related the emergence of subcultures to labelling and streaming. Pupils labelled as ‘trouble-makers’ were placed in lower streams; those whose behaviour was more acceptable in higher streams. Those with negative labels attached to them had been defined as failures: first, by being placed in a secondary modern which was seen as a second-rate institution; and second, through the streaming system. Many teachers regarded them as no more than ‘worthless louts’. Faced with the problem of being unable to achieve high status within the school, such pupils attempted to protect their sense of worth and retain a positive self-concept. Students labelled as troublemakers tended to seek out each other’s company, and within their group awarded high status to those who broke the school rules. Thus they disrupted lessons, gave cheek to teachers, failed to hand in homework, cheated and played truant. This all brought prestige. According to Hargreaves, then, two distinctive subcultures emerged within the school: the conformists and the non-conformist delinquents.


Peter Woods did not support the work done by Hargreaves. He found that schools are more complex than Hargreaves’s work would suggest. Woods based his ideas upon a study of ‘Lowfield’, a secondary modern in a rural area of the Midlands. Woods suggests that the pupils’ way of dealing with school life depends upon whether they accept or reject the aim of academic success and the institutional means which specify the appropriate forms of behaviour within the school. Woods pointed out that pupils may accept goals and means with a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm, and for different reasons. In all, Woods identified no fewer than eight different modes of adaptation to the school.


  1. Ingratiation – This is the most positive adaptation. Pupils who try to ingratiate themselves identify completely with teachers, and try to earn their favour. Such pupils care little about other pupils’ attitudes to them and they may be regarded by other pupils as ‘creeps’ or ‘teacher’s pets’
  2.  Compliance – This is a less strong positive adaptation to the school. Woods regards this adaptation as typical of new pupils in secondary schools. It is also common among older pupils who are studying for external exams, who comply for instrumental reasons, that is in order to achieve success in their exams.
  3.  Opportunism – This is an adaptation which often develops in the second year at school and may be a temporary phase before the pupil develops a stable attitude to the school. Opportunist pupils fluctuate between trying to gain the approval of their teachers and their peer group.
  4.  Ritualist – This is where pupils are deviant to the extent that they reject the goals of education, but they are not difficult to control. They will ‘go through the motions’ of attending school, and will not break school rules, but they are not concerned either to achieve academic success or to gain the approval of teachers.
  5.  Retreatists – This is where other pupils develop more deviant adaptations. Retreatists reject both the goals and the means laid down by the school, but without outright rebellion. Then try to pass the time by daydreaming in lessons, ‘mucking about’ or ‘having a laugh’, but they are not consciously trying to oppose the values of the school.
  6.  Colonization – According to Woods, a very common adaptation in later years at the school is colonization. This is characterized by ‘indifference to goals with ambivalence about means’. Colonizers attach no great importance to academic success, but will try to get away with just enough to ‘keep their noses clean’. They want to avoid trouble, but will copy or cheat if they think there is little chance of discovery.
  7.  Intransigence – This represents one of the most difficult adaptations for schools to cope with. Intransigent pupils are indifferent to academic success, and reject the accepted standards of behaviour. They are much less afraid than the colonizers to hide their deviance.
  8.  Rebellion – The final adaptation, rebellion, involves the rejection of both goals and means and their replacement with alternatives. In this case, school life is directed towards quite different objectives from those sanctioned by the school. For example, some girls might devote their school life to showing concern for their personal appearance, or discussing boys. Some boys might only be interested in escaping school to enter the world of unskilled manual work.

Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex