Flow of Ideas

Paul Willis and Learning to Labour

James Thomson

An essay written for EDU3004 ‘Education, Culture & Society’, Education Studies, School of Education, University of Northampton

3rd December 2007

This essay will analyse the 1977 study by Paul Willis, called ‘Learning to Labour’. It will begin by outlining the key features of the study and discussing possible reasons why the ‘Lads’ rejected schooling. The relevance of the study will then be considered in terms of its significance for modern day education. Throughout this piece, various articles will be called upon to support the ideas presented.

In the mid-1970s, in a West Midlands comprehensive school, fictionally called Hammertown Boys, Paul Willis embarked on a period of educational research which would prove to be revolutionary at the time, and a piece of work which, even in modern times is still referred to as important research into the education of working class children. The study has been described as one of the best books on male working class youth and is still regarded as ‘…the authority in ethnographical studies...’ (Barnes & Noble, 2007, online).

Willis’ study focused on the underachievement of 12 non-academic, working class boys, or ‘Lads’ as they are called in the text. He used a number of research methods to gather data for his ethnographical study. He combined observations with discussions, case study work and interviews to collate an in-depth, descriptive and often brutally honest understanding of the Lad’s motivations and opinions.

The Lads expressed to Willis how they were happy to settle for a basic career, working in industry. They were happy to get average grades, nothing spectacular, and then move onto skilled manual work or lower level white collar jobs, which were fairly stable and reasonably paid (Rikowski, 2006).

Additionally, by setting themselves up for working class jobs, the Lads were replicating capitalist social and economic structures. Many sociological writers such as Bowles and Gintis (1976) believe the unintentional purpose of education and schooling is to find your place in society and inadvertently, by rejecting their schooling the boys have placed themselves in the working class bracket. The education system is therefore a method of ‘working class reproduction’ for students who, on the surface appear to be resigned to their fate.

The key focus of Willis’ work is the Lads ‘oppositional culture’. Due to the Lads holding these low aspirations for their future, they formed an oppositional culture to their education, focusing on ‘…having a laff…’ (Willis, 1977, p.14) rather than gaining qualifications they believe they don’t need. This counter-school culture of resistance and opposition to academia and authority has a strong resemblance to the culture you may find in the industrial workplaces, ironically the very same environment the Lads were heading for. One reason for this anti-school culture is to gain status suggests Willis: ‘Opposition to the school is principally manifested in the struggle to win symbolic and physical space from the institution and its rules’ (1977, p.26). This idea points out that the boys are rebelling against the school itself and the idea that they ‘… make you work…’ (Ibid.).

The Lads in the book all share a severe disliking of a certain section of their pupil community, and this forms one of their main motivations for rejecting their education. They refer to these children as ‘…ear’oles…’. Ear’oles, Willis describes are ‘… school conformists…’ who appear to be the children who obey the school rules, respect the teachers and commit to their education; the exact opposite of the Lads. Importantly, the Lads don’t just dislike the ‘ear’oles’; they feel they have a superiority over them. This is based on the principle that the Lads believe the ‘ear’oles’ are wasting their time at school by not having fun and being independent. This idea is best summed up by one of the Lads, Spanksy, when he suggests:

“…I mean what will they [the ear’oles] remember of their school life? What will they look back on? Sitting in a classroom, sweating their bollocks off, you know, while we’ve been … I mean look at the things we [the Lads] can look back on…” (‘Spanksy’ in Willis, 1977, p14).

This quote gives a clear insight into the motivations held by the Lads, as it shows both their disregard for education, as well as their opposition to the other pupils who studied hard. The Lads also bully pupils on racial grounds and subject females to sexual abuse to exert their superiority of the school yard.

It is not just the ‘ear’oles’ who the boys dislike; the school staff are also seen as the opposition to the Lads. Willis questions the Lads in a discussion about their opposition to authority. He says: ‘…You think of most staff as kind of enemies? ...’ (Willis, 1977, p.12), and the lads reply by answering ‘Yeah’, which highlights again the Lads’ oppositional views against authority and conformity. They see the teachers as being the ones who try to make them act in a way they don’t want to, trying to get them to conform. This idea has a wider relevance than just the school environment. It could be suggested that through teachers, the government is exerting its power on the country and therefore the Lads were actually rebelling against more than just the school staff, they were rejecting the government.

Willis’ study does have some relevance in terms of education in the modern era. Classroom rebels, truants and trouble makers still exist in schools today: ‘The truancy rate in English schools rose last year to a record high…’ (Education Guardian, 2006, online), and ‘…truancy figures remain stubbornly high, despite millions of pounds being spent on programmes to cut the number of children missing classes…’ (Telegraph, 2007, online), which indicates there are still serious issues to be addressed in our education system.

By looking at Willis’ study, educationalists could consider some of its findings when developing the existing curriculum, or on a smaller scale, the way lessons are delivered. There are also many other dilemmas faced in the classroom, and Willis’ study could be used to combat those related to class disruption, lack of enthusiasm and to a certain extent bullying in school.

In his article Stroppy Individuals or Oppositional Cultures in Schools Today?, Rikowski (2006) raises the issue of whether there are oppositional classroom cultures today or just badly-behaved individuals. He highlights that although single disruptive pupils in classrooms are a problem, predominantly head teachers are still worried about gangs and therefore ‘cultures’ rather than individuals. Rikowski supports the view that Willis’ study is relevant to modern education. He advocates using the methods and insights of Willis to make sense of what is going on in our schools today (Rikowski, 2006). This idea would be backed by educational writers Holroyd and Armour (2003) who suggest there is a ‘…lack of systematic research and credible monitoring and evaluation’ (Holroyd and Armour, 2003, online) in the area of ‘disaffected’ youth in education.

Furthermore, the problem of ‘low aspirations’ and poor examination results in boys in particular is regularly highlighted within the media and academic publications. Garner, a journalist in The Independent, says there is a ‘…widening gap between boys and girls…’ (2001, online), and Shrimsley (1996) suggests that it is ‘…the culture of "laddism" which is leading boys to fall markedly behind girls in school’ (1996, online). This suggests that some of the difficulties the Lads experienced in their schooling and the mentality they possessed, to some extent, is still affecting modern male teenagers today, despite a whole host of educational reports and the introduction of the national curriculum.

Another example of how Willis’ study is still relevant is suggested by Le Gallais in her article There’s more to brickies and chippies than bricks and chisels. In this study Le Gallais shows how workers who have come from similar backgrounds to that of the Hammertown Lads went on to become construction lecturers. The participants felt they were guided towards industrial careers by their teachers based on their background and not their intelligence. Le Gallais’ study revealed that for ‘…the vast majority of these lecturers their educational experiences were negative’ (2006, online), which suggests that the education system of this country is doing certain pupils a disservice by not being flexible enough to cope with a variety of different learning styles. This idea is still relevant today as it could be suggested that traditional academic schooling does not suit every pupils learning style.

It can also be argued that Willis’ study is not particularly relevant today. A variety of changes in society are the main reasons that the study has little importance for in today’s conditions. The transformation the labour market has since the 1970s when the study took place is a clear indication that Willis’ work no longer applies to the teenagers of today. The introduction of the minimum wage for example ensures nobody is exploited in a work environment, something which most defiantly happened in the industrial culture of the north and Midlands in the past.

Another reason Willis’ study has less significance today than it did when it was first published is due to the increase in young people moving into higher education. In modern times the amount of teenagers leaving school with no or very few qualifications has rapidly dropped when compared to the 1970s, as has the amount of students who leave school at sixteen and go to find employment. Currently 74% of students aged 16 stay in education or continue to receive training (BBC News, online), and with the governments proposed move to raise the legal leaving age of schools to 18, more young people will be able to gain better qualifications. The rationale for upping the leaving age is due to the fact that ‘…the most recent figures for England showed that 11% of 16 to 18 year olds are still outside education, training or work…’ (BBC News, online, 2007b).

In the 1960s and 1970s, higher social groups were six times more likely to enter higher education than lower groups, but this has now changed; by 2000, this statistic had reduced to under three times (HEPI, 2003, online), showing that more lower class people are moving into higher education, reducing the class divide in these institutions.

Universities are now much more accessible; with students from all over the country moving onto higher education and gaining further qualifications in a wide variety of fields [See Appendix 1: not included here]. Appendix 1 shows even in the last five years the number of students applying to higher education continues to increase. In 2006, the number dropped slightly due to the increase of tuition fees, but even with this drop (only 3%) (BBC News, online, 2007a) the number of people applying is still much larger than in the 1970s. The slump in applications may be a one-off effect, similar to the one-year decline in 1998 when tuition fees were first introduced (BBC News, online, 2007a).

In conclusion, Willis’ ethnographicl study does still have some relevance to education today. Although the study was carried out in the 1970s and many things have changed since then, this essay has highlighted some of Willis’ findings which can still be of relevance. Rikowski (2006) in particular supports the idea that Willis’ study can be of some use in current education. He suggests that in modern education research very few studies, if any, have come close to gaining such useful and reliable data as Willis’ ethnographic project.

Willis’s study could be used to alter the current curriculum. It is important to consider that since the 1970s, a national curriculum and various other schemes have been implemented yet the problem of truants, classroom wreckers and bullies to name just a few, still exist in modern day schools. David Cameron has suggested that many schools are ‘…plagued by indiscipline…’ (Clark, 2007, online), which again highlights the need for the issue to be addressed. Willis’ study, which shows examples of indiscipline could be used to modify the way schools are run and the way students are taught in particular.


Barnes and Noble, (2007) (online) Learning to Labour: How working class kids get working class jobs: Synopsis. Available from:
http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?z=y&endeca=1&isbn=0231053576&itm=2 [Accessed 20th November 2007].

BBC News (2007a) (online) Applications to University Rise, available from:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6360327.stm [Accessed 30th November 2007].

BBC News (2007b) (online) School Leaving Age Set to be 18, available from:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6254833.stm [Accessed 30th November 2007].

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976) cited in Dolby, N. Dimitiriadis, G. & Willis, P. (2004) Learning to Labour in New Times, Routledge: New York and London. Clark, L. (2007) (online) Tories pledge to turn round failing schools with a culture of respect, available from:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=495119&in_page_id=1770 [Accessed 30th November 2007].

Education Guardian, (2006) (online) Truancy Rates Rise To Record High, available from:
http://education.guardian.co.uk/pupilbehaviour/story/0,,1877774,00.html [Accessed 30th November 2007].

Garner, R. (2001) (online) Exam results reveal widening gap between boys and girls, available from:
http://news.independent.co.uk/education/education_news/article210382.ece [Accessed 24th November 2007]

HEPI: Higher Education Policy Institute, (2003) (online) Widening Participation and Fair Access: An Overview of the Evidence, available from:
http://www.hepi.ac.uk/pubdetail.asp?ID=148&DOC=Reports [Accessed 30th November 2007].

Holroyd, R. & Armour, K. (2003) (online) Re-engaging disaffected youth through physical activity programs, available from:
http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003304.htm [Accessed 30th November 2007.]

Le Gallais, T. (2003) (online) There’s more to brickies and chippies than bricks and chisels, available from:
http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/160863.htm [Accessed 30th November 2007].

Rikowski, G. (2006) (online) Conforming Schools, Conforming Kids? available from:
http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Conforming%20Schools%20Conforming%20Kids [Accessed 21st November 2007].

Rikowski, G. (2006) (online) Stroppy Individuals or Oppositional Cultures in Schools Today? available from:
http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Stroppy%20Individuals%20and%20Oppositional%20Cultures%20in%20Schools [Accessed 2nd December 2007].

Telegraph (2007) (online) Ministers Abandon Truancy Targets, available from:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/10/25/nedu225.xml [Accessed 30th November 2007].

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

James Thomson wrote this essay when he was a final year Education Studies student at the University of Northampton. The original title was: ‘Briefly outline the key features of Paul Willis’ (1977) study, Learning to Labour. Why did the Lads reject schooling? What is the relevance of Willis’ study for schools today?’

© James Thomson, 4th October 2008

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