Flow of Ideas
Stroppy Individuals or Oppositional Cultures in Schools Today?

Glenn Rikowski, London, 7th October 2006


Ten years ago I wrote a paper called Scorched Earth: Prelude to rebuilding Marxist educational theory, which eventually resulted in an article in a journal (Rikowski, 1997). It dealt with what I considered to be some of the problems internal to what I called the Old Marxist educational theory. One of five aspects of the Old Marxist educational theory dealt with there was Resistance Theory deriving from Paul Willis’ hugely influential Learning to Labour (1977). Of course, Resistance Theory was not a term coined by Willis himself. Rather, it seeped into the discourse of Marxist educational theory and research via synthesisers such as Blackledge and Hunt (1985) and A-level sociology textbooks. These commentators tended to contrast the Left structural-functional analyses of schools flowing from Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America (1976), which appeared to incorporate a deterministic and fatalistic analysis of how schools function in relation to pupils, with that of Willis’ analysis, where some degree of autonomy and choice (via cultural resistance) appeared to pertain.

These two groundbreaking books (Bowles and Gintis, 1976; and Willis, 1977) set the framework within which the Old Marxist educational theory moved (as I explained in Rikowski, 1997). However, they continued to haunt and inform my own thinking, even though I advocated a ‘scorched earth’ policy which meant starting afresh with Marxist educational theory from Marx’s writings. Yet their relevance seems to be continually reinforced by events and developments within educational systems. Here, I want to focus on Willis’ classic study, as it seems to offer a lot regarding the analysis of current moral panics regarding ‘unruly kids’ in schools.

The Lads Revisited and Oppositional School Cultures

Learning to Labour (Willis, 1977) was a close and finely-crafted ethnographic study of a group of lads in a comprehensive school in the West Midlands. The Lads, as they were called, were contrasted to the Ear ‘oles, by Willis. The former created an oppositional school culture. They opposed the values of the school in all its aspects: subjects, teachers, routines, organisation and much more. They formed their own counter-school culture which had close links to the shop floor culture of factories their fathers worked in. The latter were educational conformists, who largely followed rules, put at least a minimal effort into school work and did not typically confront teachers or the school authorities.

The Lads despised the Ear ‘oles as being effeminate, bookish and boring. They were anti-intellectual. They also held reactionary views regarding girls and women and people from ethnic minorities. They were classroom disruptors, but also clever with it: having such a great time at school – ‘aving a laff – they did not want to get expelled. School was fun! Willis’ book was very insightful regarding how individual pupils became Lads: how they developed and ‘came out’ as Lads, so to speak. He vividly portrays the great games and scams they got up to: typically at the expense of teachers – whose school lives were made into veritable nightmares. Yet some of Willis’ critics panned him for presenting the Lads as lovable rogues; whereas, viewing them as proto-Fascists or just plain thugs might have been more accurate, these critics argued (see Rikowski, 1997).

Willis stressed that as a group the Lads constituted a school counter-culture. This counter- or oppositional culture had its own rules, values and norms of behaviour. Being a member of the Lads did not mean you could do just what you liked: you had to conform to the rules and behaviour of the group.

The Significance of Culture

Looking back on Learning to Labour 25 years later (Willis, 2004), Willis stressed the importance of culture in understanding the Lads’ behaviour (pp.168-199). As he notes, although the concept of culture is ‘embattled’:

“The more it is criticized, the more we need it. Why do we need this portmanteau term? Because it designates materially symbolic patterns and associated practices of human meaning making in context, which cannot be reduced to a reflex of something else – individual psychology, “discourses,” or the economy. It is its own thing” (p.169).

Thus, the oppositional culture of the Lads cannot be reduced to economic factors, even though in Learning to Labour the Lads’ counter-culture put them at a disadvantage in the labour market (no qualifications, poor school reports and no teachers willing to speak positively about them). Willis stressed that the Lads were engaged in cultural production, and this was an active and creative process that could not just be read off from some requirements of the economy. The Lads had real choice and agency. Indeed, part of their loathing of the Ear ‘oles was that they denied their own agency and possibilities for autonomy, fun and creativity.

Willis has had many seeming imitators, but none of his disciples have portrayed the notion of an oppositional school culture as clearly and as vividly as Willis did. For example, Carolyn Jackson in Lads and Ladettes (2006) provides some interesting data based on two studies that used interviews and questionnaires. However, it was not an ethnographic study, and it would seem that only such a study could explore, portray and explain particular oppositional school cultures. The study of such oppositional school cultures appears to require the intensive, close and group-centred research that only ethnography can yield.

The Rise of the Stroppy Individual?

Indeed, rather than examining school cultures, there appears to be an individualisation of the ‘stroppy school kid’ in recent research. Thus, the articles in Lloyd (2006) focus on particular types of ‘problem girl’ (e.g. those with mental health problems, violent girls) or particular aspects of their lives (e.g. sexuality and EBD). Any notion of oppositional school culture is lost in the process. Naughty girls and boys seem to be operating as individuals against the system. They are ‘lone wolves’.

This individualisation of stroppiness or bad, risky and anti-social behaviour is reflected in much media presentation of classroom and school disruptors. Flintoff (2004) and Harris (2005) focus on individual awkward or violent kids. Harris argues that ‘hardcore’ individuals, as few as ‘one in ten’ have made many classrooms learning-free zones. One wonders, if these kids are operating as individuals, how they have had the effect of tipping schools over into the ‘failing’ category. This individualisation of classroom naughtiness can engender simplistic and retro solutions: for example, bringing back the cane, which even 47 percent of 18 to thirty years olds seem to be in favour of in one survey (see Frean, 2004).

Occasionally the mask slips. Thus, reports by Smithers (2005) and Shaw (2006) indicate that head teachers are concerned most about gangs, not lone class disruptors. These gangs may well share many of the cultural traits of Willis’ Lads – 30 years after his research was done – as far as can be discerned from these brief reports. Furthermore, in some cases, even where pupils oppose schools as groups, it is some individuals who are demonised. For example, when new school rules were introduced in Bosworth College in Leicestershire recently, 150 14-19 year olds protested, but two girls, the ‘ringleaders’, were arrested for public disorder (see Bushby and Legg, 2006). We have seen this over the past few centuries of capitalism in relation to trade union activity, too. Indeed, according to Bushby and Legg:

“The protest started after organisers handed out flyers at the college gates, chanting “strike, strike”. The police persuaded the pupils to move inside the school’s security fence, after a three-and-a-half-hour stand-off.”

So: stroppy individuals and ringleaders, or oppositional school cultures? I would wager that if we really want to know what is going on then the individualisation of bad behaviour in schools will not yield any substantial understanding of much anti-school or anti-learning pupil activity. The insights and methods of Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour are needed today more than ever to make sense of what is happening in our schools.


Blackledge, D. & Hunt, B. (1985) Sociological Interpretations of Education, London: Croom Helm.

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bushby, R. & Legg, J. (2006) Two girls arrested in violent discipline revolt, Times Educational Supplement, 6th October, p.6.

Flintoff, J-P. (2004) Lost innocents, FT Magazine, Issue No.82, 20th November, pp.16-24.

Frean, A. (2004) ‘Six of the best’ needed to curb unruly pupils, The Times, 13th September, p.7.

Harris, S. (2004) Collapse of the classrooms as hooligans win power struggle, Daily Mail, 3rd February, p.19.

Jackson, C. (2006) , Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Lloyd, G. (ed.) (2006) Problem Girls: Understanding and supporting troubled and troublesome girls and you women, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Rikowski, G. (1997) Scorched Earth: Prelude to rebuilding Marxist educational theory, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol.18 No.4, pp.551-574.

Shaw, M. (2006) Hyped tales of armed warfare anger pupils, Times Educational Supplement, 6th October, p.6.

Smithers, R. (2005) Headteachers far growing gang culture in schools, says Ofsted report, The Guardian, 1st March, p.9.

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

Willis, P. (2004) Twenty-Five Years On: Old Books, New Times, in: Dolby, N. & Dimitriadis, G. (Eds.) Learning to Labour in New Times, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

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