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It's generally held as truth over this side of the pond that American high schools have a rigidly-defined, universal caste system that governs every single young person's experience of their teenage years.

In short, the group is ruled by the jocks and the cheerleaders, with the prom king and prom queen the absolute highest of the high.

Underneath the top strata of "the 'in' crowd" there are the alternative kids, who embrace some of the following: indie music, skate clothing, drugs, underage sex or art classes. Alongside the punkers and rockers there are the 'nice kids' - not the brains, not the prom queens, not the rebellious type, but those who generally get on with some or all of the other groups.

And then there is the underclass. The geeks. The nerds. The mathletes. The smelly. The poor. The audio-visual club members. The utterly anti-social.

Again, from a purely British point of view, these strata do not only exist throughout the US, but the general rule is that the jocks pick on the nerds, the alternatives hate the straights and the cheerleaders are simultaneously what everybody else wants to be and what everybody else hates.

In England, the social order of a secondary school is, to my mind, very different:

On top of the pile we have the school soccer team. The guys in the footy team are among the most popular and are the only legitimate partners for the popular girls. These girls are drawn from a combination of sources. The sporty girls (e.g the school hockey or netball team) make up a core of this group, alongside the girls who have started puberty early (but not those who are already having sex at age 12). Typical traits are group crushes on Sixth Form Boys (US readers note: Sixth Form corresponds to junior and senior year) or young teachers, daily use of make-up at school, immensely short skirts (US readers note: Most of us still wear school uniforms).

Somewhat intertwined with the 'top boys' are the Hard Lads. These are usually not as obviously 'cool' as the alpha males, but are usually physically imposing and prone to handing out beatings on the school field. They are mostly of reduced intellect, but are the scourge of all boys who do not rank at least equal to them on the social scale.

Girls, too, have a significant presence in this stratum. The Rough Girls are usually to be found smoking, skipping classes, bullying smaller and smarter girls, and generally acting objectionably. Although they are shunned entirely by the 'top girls', they do not adopt alternative styles of dress. Instead, they are characterised by cheap jewellery, permed hair, loud sportswear and an aggressive demeanour.

Few and far between in the early years of secondary school, but increasingly apparent as the group grows older, the alternative kids are another important group. In many ways they correspond to their peers in the US - borrowing many cues from across the pond, they wear baggy clothes, listen to Limp Bizkit or Slipknot, sport goth-style makeup and have a general distaste for the social climbing and what they see as the vacuous striving for popularity amongst their peers. Unlike how we perceive the States to be, however, this group contains drama geeks, band geeks, and every other lower-order group whose remit is not intellectual.

Finally, we have the 'untouchables'. These comprise the brains, the socially gauche, the poor, the late-developers and the geeks. There is as much a culture of bullying and repression in British schools as there is in American, but it doesn't come from the same source. However, none of the above groups (with notable exceptions from the alternative group) mix socially with this final group.

I'm noding this partly to gain an understanding of whether my preconceptions about American high school social structure are valid or not. Certainly, I don't think there is such a groundswell of resentment about school here that there is over there. Even those who were assured of their place at the bottom of the social order seem to have at least some happy memories of school. But then again, I am speaking as a student who was a member of the school soccer team, got great grades throughout, did lots of drama and listened to Green Day *and* 2Pac - so I guess my views are tainted by not being exculsively a member of one social group. Am I just spitting out the Hollywood version of American social structure?
It's worth noting that at my school there were also the prefects taken from all FastEddie's well defined groups. They came roughly in order from sports people, smart chatty types and useful geeks (for library duties etc).

Prefects could easily be elevated in status or rejected as teacher's pet depending on use and abuse of their priveliges (they were nearly all door monitors). This adds a new dimension the the heirarchy, unlike the position of hall monitor which I believe is universally resented.

Of further note is the fact that my school only went up to age 16, and after GCSE exams we either left school or went to a separate college. This, coupled with the fact that we all wore school uniform and had strict rules about make-up etc, meant that nobody really expressed themselves until after school. However, this was made up for by my very relaxed college, an excellent first step towards university with most social types represented and - pleasingly - no uniform.

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