The culture of 'cool' in school

Listening to pupils' own perceptions of group dynamics is vital to developing an understanding of their complex and multifaceted relationships, a study argues

Popular teenagers admit that they are often secretly jealous of "swotty" classmates' test results and future job prospects, new research reveals. But they acknowledge that their cool status nonetheless remains dependent on them messing around during lessons and avoiding anything resembling hard work.

Carolyn Jackson and Nigel Sherriff, of Lancaster University, interviewed more than 1,100 pupils between them, asking them questions about their friendship groups and the way in which they perceive other groups at school.

The research, which will appear in the journal Qualitative Research in Psychology, emphasises the importance of psychology in understanding the social backdrop to pupils' education. This emphasis underpins Lancaster University's psychology in education degree, which produces graduates who go on to work in fields such as educational psychology.

The Lancaster academics found that teenagers tended to make sweeping generalisations about groups to which they did not belong. For example, Year 9 pupil Paula said: "There's a big group of Year 9 girls, and they're all ... really slaggy."

Similarly, Year 9 pupil Lesley talked about: "A big group of people, and they think they're cool, but they're not."

Such generalisations do not merely apply to the cool kids. "When my group walks past the swot group, we'll think, 'Oh, they're just a bunch of swots'," Paula said. "And they've all got their skirts down to their knees and everything, and all their hair tied back and no make-up on and no jewellery, and you just think, 'Oh my God, they're total swots' - and we just give them dirty looks."

In fact, group boundaries were policed so thoroughly that even in-group members were punished with dirty looks for speaking to members of the swot group: they were considered tainted by association.

"If one of (the swots) wanted to hang around with us, we'd just, like, totally blank them and say, 'Go away. Don't even speak to us'," Paula said. "And if you were, like, talking to one of them, everyone would walk past and give you dirty looks."

But despite the unequivocal uncoolness of being a "swot" or a "boff", pupils' attitudes proved unexpectedly complex. Definitions were rarely as clear-cut as "swottiness is bad".

Paula went on to say: "Really, you're sort of jealous of (the swots) in a way, because they get all the good grades, and they're going to get dead good jobs when they're older."

In the 21st century, the researchers noted, good academic credentials are seen as vital for a successful career. Almost all pupils interviewed acknowledged this pressure to achieve: 90 per cent of those interviewed by Dr Jackson agreed with the statement that doing well in school was important in order to get a good job in later life.

Dr Jackson cited Year 9 pupil Clara, who described her fleeting membership of a popular group. "I thought, 'You're in with the popular people, and you're going to have friends and stuff'," Clara said. "Then I started dropping back on work ... and then I left them ... I'm not like them, like being bad in lessons and stuff."

Her classmate Faya, meanwhile, pointed out that understanding the importance of schoolwork did not immediately render someone a swot: "We work hard, we try our best, but we don't suck up to the teachers or anything."

The researchers concluded by highlighting the importance of listening to teenagers' own versions of their group dynamics.

"It is only by exploring pupils' understandings of group memberships, of how groups operate ... that the complexities and nuances of intergroup relations can be understood more fully," they said. "Real-world groups form, fragment, reform, compete and so on, for reasons that are both complex and multifaceted."


Lancaster University's psychology in education degree looks at how to apply psychological theory to real-life educational contexts:

Carolyn Jackson, senior lecturer, Lancaster University:


There is one quality that, above all others, is the hallmark of teenage coolness: the ability to look as though you are not trying too hard at schoolwork, impressing teachers or making friends.

Researchers from Lancaster University found that among the 1,100 teenagers they questioned, effortless achievement (or, more accurately, apparently effortless achievement) was a highly prized quality. While trying too hard was deemed swotty, achievement without effort was seen as a sign of innate coolness.

Year 9 pupil Faya talked about "a group of girls who will suck up to the teachers, who go to see them at break. 'Miss, do you want a sweet? Miss, do you want a crisp?' ... They don't just work hard, they suck up to the teachers ... But with us, we work hard, we try our best, but we don't suck up to the teachers or anything."

The swots' crime, in other words, is not working hard. It is trying too hard.

This standard is not just applicable to schoolwork. For example, "hard" boys were more likely to be considered cool. But acting hard was not the same thing as being hard.

Year 10 pupil Philip defined bullies as people who "act hard, but deep down they're nowt but a set of poofs".

Popularity, too, was required to be effortless. Year 9 pupil Alan derided classmates who tried too hard to achieve this. "They just try and do what the really popular people do, but it doesn't work half the time," he said. "Because if they're trying, everybody just laughs at them for trying to be popular."

The Lancaster findings stand in direct opposition to a paper by Cambridge University academics, published earlier this year, in which teenagers spoke about the importance of hiding their identity from classmates. They quoted one boy who claimed that "being yourself could ruin your life".

By contrast, the Lancaster researchers concluded: "Those who tried too hard at anything ... including being popular, were seen as inauthentic wannabes."

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