Flow of Ideas
Conforming Schools, Conforming Kids?

Glenn Rikowski, London, 15th October 2006

Introduction The media typically characterise today’s school and higher education students as ‘conformist’ and maybe even boring, unlike previous generations of such folk. In particular, the school and higher education students of the late 1960s and early 1970s are often looked back on nostalgically by journalists and commentators as a generation that had courage, that cared about events – local, national and international – enough to protest about them. Now, it is held by these pundits, young people are buckling down, with university and debts on the horizon and those choice jobs to get. The option of leaving school and getting a job at the earliest opportunity, as in the 1960s and 1970s, has been withdrawn by employers. Gratification has been deferred to an incredible degree these days, it seems.

Some sociological studies of the 1980s and 1990s now look rather dated in the light of the massive changes in youth labour markets and the emergence of a mass higher education system. But what these studies did point to was some kind of (mostly) unspoken and implicit deal: you study, don’t cause trouble and you’ll get the grades and report you need and the then the job you want. Let’s begin by looking at a few of these studies, and then ask: what is The Deal for young people in education today?

Shane Blackman’s Boffin Girls

Shane Blackman’s classic study (Blackman, 1995) of the ‘boffin girls’ gets at some of the roots of student conformism. The boffin girls in Blackman’s research were thirteen Year 11 girls who formed two main subgroups. These boffin girls saw themselves as being academically superior, yet sexually and socially inferior. The boffins supported the schools’ values and the school organisation – unless these conflicted with their academic aspirations.

The deal for these girls was to support the school in return for guaranteed academic success and the promise of sixth form study and then university and professional jobs. They would rarely act as a group against the school, and then only when they saw their goals threatened. There might be poor teachers or the school organisation might falter, for example. According to Blackman they ‘specialised in academic superiority’ (p.14). Conformism was at the foundation of their style; they had what Blackman called a ‘pedagogic promenade’. It was also at the base of their career and academic trajectory.

Phil Brown’s Ordinary Kids

For Phil Brown’s Ordinary Kids (Brown, 1987) the deal was different. His student of the average kind of school kid in Middleport, south Wales was undertaken when the traditional youth labour market in south Wales as under severe strain. Youth unemployment was at an historical peak in the early 1980s when the study was undertaken. Brown located three main pupil groups: the rems, the swots and the ordinary kids. The rems were perceived as being not that bright, the ‘remedials’, whilst the swots were something like Blackman’s boffin girls. But it was the majority of Ordinary Kids that Brown was mostly interested in.

He was interested in their ‘orientation’ to life, work and study, and what he called their ‘frames of reference’ (FORs): the values, aspirations and expectations that acted as a basis for their behaviour in school. Says Brown:

“Pupil FORs are creatively constructed, reproduced, and transformed drawing upon the raw materials of class culture. This class culture is the historical product of the past educational and labour market experiences of working-class people in Middleport. Therefore, the rapid increased in youth unemployment during the time these pupils were in secondary school, has serious consequences for becoming adult and for the collective understanding of what it means to be a working-class pupil in school” (p.35).

There are some parallels with Willis’ lads here (Willis, 1977). These ordinary kids were after decent grades, nothing spectacular, and then going into skilled manual work or lower level white collar jobs. They were seeking ‘tidy’ jobs, in their own words. These were jobs that had a modicum of status, were relatively stable and reasonably paid. The deal was they would buckle down to the minimum (but typically no more) to get the qualifications necessary for entry into these ‘tidy’ jobs. That was the deal. However, Brown argued that this deal was under threat and strain. He believed that the compliance of the ordinary kids to school rules and norms might not be so forthcoming if the youth labour market remained sour or deteriorated further. If the ‘tidy’ jobs were not on offer, Brown predicted that on the logic of their FORs, these ordinary kids might not be so willing to conform.

A New Deal?

Despite the media stereotypes regarding student conformity, another emerging stereotype is of a whole range of pupil groups showing non-conformist attitudes. The ‘yob culture’ in schools and colleges, or de yobos seems to be the new fascination of media Jeremiahs, though this was always present to some extent. The kids are turning nasty, it seems.

Over the last few years there have been stories about pupil boycotts of lessons due to what they perceived as poor education (Clark, 2004) and student strikes (e.g. Hawkins, 2004) – these are just a few examples from newspaper cuttings I have amassed on the topic of pupil protest over the last three years. My personal favourite is when students at Adam Smith College in Kirkcaldy in Scotland protested at the name of their college. They thought that Adam Smith, the classical political economist, represented exploitation and greed (see Lister, 2005). As George Monbiot (2005) has argued, the laws surrounding protest in general have been stiffened since the 1960 and 1970s, making it almost impossible these days for peaceful protest to exist. Some have pointed to similar trends of pupil and student protest in other countries; for example, McNeil (2006 – on Japanese school children who refuse to sing the national anthem in class, which was made compulsory in 1999) and the USA (2005 – Moore on students walking out of lessons in protest at military recruitment drives on campus). The kids, it seems, are not necessarily all boffins and ordinary kid conformists.

The ‘deal’ in England today is much muddier than it was in the 1970s. Deferred gratification has become ever more deferred. The good grades in school are needed not necessarily directly for work but for the choice of university place, and then only further (successful) study ensures a chance at getting the desired job. With some students coming out with £15,000+ in debts from fees and loans due to policies deriving from both Conservative and Labour administrations of the last 15 years (though fees are at New Labour’s door), then the search for a decent life, with the possibility of getting a mortgage and so on might be further delayed. Real independence recedes into the future (see Rikowski, 2001).

The nature of the current ‘deal’ for young people is obscure. The prospects for pupil and student conformity will be tested further still when, as predicted, the lid comes off higher education fees in 2010. Meanwhile, many pupils and students will continue to conform, perhaps on the understanding that things are getting more complex and tougher in education and the labour market.

So what’s the deal now?


Blackman, S. (1995) Youth: Positions and Oppositions – Style, sexuality and schooling, Aldershot: Avebury.

Brown, P. (1987) Schooling Ordinary Kids: Inequality, Unemployment, and the New Vocationalism, London & New York: Tavistock Publications.

Clark, L. (2004) School closes as 40 pupils boycott classes in protest at poor education, Daily Mail, 21st May, p.32.

Hawkins, J. (2004) Student strike piles pressure in beleaguered head, Times Educational Supplement, 8th October, p.7.

Lister, D. (2005) College is giving us a bad name, declare students, Times Online, 3rd October, at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1808639,00.html

McNeill, D. (2006) Japan cracks down on rebel pupils who refuse to sing, The Independent, 16th March, p.27.

Monbiot, G. (2006) Protest is criminalised and the huffers and puffers say nothing, The Guardian, 4th October, p.27.

Moore, T. (2005) USA: Students walk out against Iraq occupation and military recruitment, The Socialist, 17-23 November, p.5.

Rikowski, G. (2001) The B Generation, 1st May, London, written for and distributed at the May Day Monopoly events in central London, and available online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=B%20Generation

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How working class kids get working class job, Farnborough: Saxon House.

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