Every school is somewhat divided into different, smaller groups, as every student would naturally find their own niche eventually and people generally hang out with other people with similar interests and personalities. It's only natural for the student body to be split, and for cliques to form as a result. But in fictionland, sometimes this is taken to its natural extreme- not only is the school divided, but those divides decide everything in the school. The cliques don't mingle, and when they do, it's to antagonize each other, with each group seeing all the others in a negative light.
The most common forms of division are:
- Clique-Based: Every student is sorted into a clique, and it's frowned upon to have friends or interests outside of that one clique. Sometimes there are so many cliques we need a Clique Tour to introduce them all, but other times, it's boiled down to the basic "Popular Student Clique versus Everyone Else", with that elite clique often being involved in sports. Please note though that a school just having cliques isn't enough — there must be some acknowledgment of the divide these cliques cause in order to count.
- Social-Class-Based: The school is divided by the student's wealth or lack-there-of; usually this means there are a wealthier elite and a less-wealthy majority, who may have less privilege and worse treatment. The students sort themselves based on class, and as a result, there's often a class war that ensues.
- Grade-Based: Characters are split up by the school itself into groups based on academic standing, with the worst-ranking students often being treated like dirt as a result. Moving up may be as simple as getting better grades, but these students may have their abilities sabotaged or limited, forcing them to stay where they are. This can overlap with the Social-Class variant pretty easily, as lower-class students are less likely to do as well in school, but it's not inherent.
Of course, any division reason may apply, as long as the school is divided to such an extreme that there are at least two separate, co-existing cultures that are at odds with each other. One group is far more likely to be treated better than the others, so this allows the Alpha Bitch, Jerk Jock, Big Man on Campus, and Absurdly Powerful Student Council to thrive, regardless of why the school is divided. It may also be enforced by the school's faculty, all the way up to a strict Dean Bitterman, who considers any attempt to shake up this system as rule-breaking and chaos. It can also be self-perpetuating, with the students themselves encouraging this divide, or rule-enforced, where this division is an actual school policy.
And rest assured; things will be shaken up. It's almost a guarantee that this system will be threatened somehow, either by the quirky protagonist breaking down the barriers, a major conflict between groups that force a solution to be found, or the divide's main-enforcer being thrown out of power. This isn't easy, and there's bound to be a lot of major opposition, but the heroes will invariably be on the side of fixing the divide and allowing students to be treated equally. Even if the system doesn't crumble entirely, the protagonist will often try and make things less strict.
Compare Urban Segregation and Aggressive Categorism, Fantastic Caste System, and Grouped for Your Convenience, all of which capture similar ideas about division and judgment, but on a wider scale than just a school setting. They may overlap if the school system is a product of the wider societal issues. Contrast with School Forced Us Together, where the school system acts to brings students with differing personalities and backgrounds together.
- This is a main plot concept in Assassination Classroom, in which the sociopathic headmaster of an elite private school keeps grades up by segregating the academically under-achieving in a tumbledown shack a long way from the main building, instituting rules designed solely to inconvenience and humiliate them, and encouraging the other pupils to hate and despise them.
- In Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts, the students at Fumizuki Academy are academically sorted by the entrance exam test grades. The higher the grades, the higher the class, therefore better the benefits. In this case, Class A is filled with the highest-scoring students; therefore, their classroom is filled with many prestigious items (air conditioners, fancy seats, laptops, a free snack bar, etc.), while the state of Class F is the complete opposite of that, representing the "Bottom of the Barrel/Lowest of the Low" amenities, such as mats and low wooden tables.
- In Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, Shuchiin Academy students are divided between the pure students who have been in the Academy since childhood, and the impure students who came in from outside. The fact that Shirogane managed to become the Student Council President despite being impure is considered very impressive.
- In GTO: Paradise Lost, Onizuka has to teach the G-class, where students are all teenage entertainers who are divided into three classes (A, B, and C) ranked by celebrity and enjoying, for the higher ranks, more privileges such as being able to more easily leave during courses.
- An interesting example for Honnouji Academy in Kill la Kill where the students are not divided by cliques or clubs, but by star level, from the President of the Absurdly Powerful Student Council and her four 3-star generals to the pathetic no stars that make up the general population. A student's star level dictates what resources they and their families have access to. Upward mobility is possible, but grueling and, unless you can come up with a unique and new school club of your own, requires replacing someone else to get past 1-star.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, Duel Academy students get grouped into three dorms: Obelisk Blue students are the elites, in either dueling skills or family connections, Ra Yellow students are mostly promising duelists, and Slifer Red students are considered rejects and losers. There's a lot of strife between dorms — at least, until Jaden Yuki (a Slifer Red) starts shaking up the status quo.
- Freezing: West Genetics (and other Pandora training centers) is divided along grade lines such that instead of being Sempai/Kohai, the later-year students are literally lower-year students' military superiors. The Adults Are Useless, so this turns into a Drill Sergeant Nasty scenario where the sempai are free to brutally bully the kohai virtually without consequences. The entire first arc consists of second-year protagonist Satellizer El Bridget getting into an escalating one-woman war with the third-year students, until Student Council President Chiffon Fairchild finally directly orders the third-years to stand down after transfer student Rana Linchen gets dragged into it.
- In My Immortal, Hogwarts is apparently divided into two antagonistic groups, the villainous, pastel-wearing, pop-music loving "Prepz", and the protagonist's group, the "goffs", who wear dark colors, listen to "goffik" music and even change their names to be "evil" or "dark" sounding. These two groups are so utterly opposed to each other that they regularly insult, torment, and assault one-another, but the "preps" are in a position of power, due to most of the school faculty taking their side. It used to be even worse in the past, as Enoby learns that Dumblydore used to be so anti-"goff", he'd send students to Azkaban for it.
- Bratz has the division as an actual school rule. When the four main characters first arrive, the Alpha Bitch Meredith tries to sort them and everyone else into cliques in an effort to keep everything orderly. This actually manages to work for a few years, as everyone but Yasmin manages to fit into a clique, and the later attempts to break out of this situation is what creates the big conflict.
- High School Musical: A big plot-point in the first film was about how the school was so divided into cliques that everyone was horrified when Troy wanted to do something besides basketball. There's an entire song about how some of the students are having their secret passions suppressed, simply because their friends can't stand the thought of them expanding beyond their niche.
- Lemonade Mouth: The high school is very much run on the principle of "Athletes Vs. Everyone Else". All the non-athletic clubs are shoved into the basement and are severely neglected by their sports-obsessed principal, and when the titular band tries and revolt against this unfair treatment, they get bullied by the most powerful kids in school and targeted by said principal, as well.
- In Mean Girls, the school is aggressively split into cliques. These cliques, we are told, dictate your whole social life and capital. There is no overlap between them; the possibility that Cady would even be friends with Janis is akin to social suicide.
You got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, JV jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, Varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don't eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst. Beware of the Plastics.
- In Sky High (2005), the titular school is divided between heroes and "hero support", also known as side-kicks, based solely on their powers at the time of enrollment. "Hero support" students are looked down on by pretty much everyone else, and outright bulled in most cases, in addition to their classroom being much smaller and poorly funded, and them not even having the privilege to choose their own hero names. The driving conflict of the film is the protagonist being sorted into Hero Support for not having a superpower.
- The Wave is about a high school teacher creating a social movement (the Wave) in his class encouraging discipline and a definite us/them mentality, which at first produces positive results but quickly degenerates into an elitist environment where people are getting ostracized for not joining the movement. The teacher quickly announces the movement's leader will make a televised broadcast... and shows a picture of Hitler.
- Hogwarts students in Harry Potter are divided into four houses (Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw) at the beginning of their education at the Wizarding School. Each year, they compete in a contest about getting the most school points on good behavior, and whichever house gets the most points at the end of the school year wins the House Cup. In addition, they also compete in a Quidditch tournament every year. This results in Hogwarts Houses being very tribalistic (especially between Gryffindor and Slytherin) and have wildly differing cultures, such as Slytherin having more support for blood purity and Ravenclaw being more intellectual. This setup derived from a dispute among the Hogwarts founders about which personality type (and in Salazar Slytherin's case, which ancestry) the school should recruit.
- Experiment House, in C. S. Lewis The Silver Chair, is a horrid example of this trope. Run-on the theory that "boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked," a gang of bullies take over and make the lives of all the others, including our protagonists Jill and Eustace, living nightmares. They are so feared that they are referred to only as "Them" , and the faculty is on "Their" side: "The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the main result was that you became rather a favourite than otherwise."
- The five Houses in The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School (each named after a Shakespeare heroine) are presented as not mixing much, and each having a unique character (defined as scary, sporty, babies, posh, and "red-headed stepchildren", the ones who don't fit anywhere else). We're not told how Houses are assigned to girls who started as Firsts, but when Amy joins the school as a Third, she's put in Desdemona (the red-headed stepchildren) simply because a Desdemona Third has transferred out, and therefore there's a spare bed. Presumably, if she'd been put in one of the other Houses, she'd have been pressured into following the House stereotype. The school is further divided into Unusuals and Ordinaries.
- Played for Laughs in Community, episode "App Development and Condiments". The introduction of a Fictional Social Network quickly causes vicious dystopic social stratification by their rating on said site, and a class war to ensue. The moral? Social Media Is Bad!
- Satirized in the Netflix high school comedy Daybreak. The show is set After the End, where nuclear war and biological warfare have rendered the Southern California city of Glendale a Teenage Wasteland. The pre-established clique division of the city's high school was so significant that it heavily influenced the formation of the many factions, or "Tribes," that's made up of what's left of the world's youths. For example, if you were an athlete in high school before the Apocalypse, you aligned yourself with the Jocks; if you were a cheerleader, you aligned with the Cheermazons; if you were a gamer, you were with the Game Overs, and so on and so forth.
- In Kamen Rider Fourze, Gentaro Kisaragi's life goal is to befriend everybody. When he enters high school, he is told it be impossible for him to befriend every student body since they are divided into cliques. By around the 10th episode, he does befriend everybody, subverting the trope.
- In the Malcolm in the Middle episode "Cliques", the Krelboynes end up being split among the general student population after an unauthorized science experiment causes the Krelboyne facilities to be temporarily condemned for decontamination. Various Krelboynes end up joining other cliques, such as the goths, skaters, jocks, and so on until the whole student body is divided against itself because it no longer has the unifying factor of their jealousy/hatred of the Krelboynes to unite them.
- Downplayed in Veronica Mars. The school, like the rest of Neptune, is divided heavily by social class, with the students of billionaires being favored in almost every circumstance. This was taken further with the school's "Pirate Point" program, which gave athletes and student council members privileges the others were not allowed to have, and when one student ran for president specifically to end this system, she gained a lot of supporters among the lower-class students but was opposed heavily by the richer students and most of the teaching staff.
- Ever After High: Students are divided into two groups, Royal and Rebel. The Royal students are intent on following their individual destinies to keep their stories alive, while the Rebel students are unhappy with their destinies and would rather follow their own path.
- In Bully, Bullworth Academy is divided into five main cliques: the Bullies, the Nerds, the Jocks, the Preppies, and the Greasers. Part of the game includes doing sidequests to earn/lose reputation with each of these factions.
- In Ensemble Stars!, this was enforced by the Absurdly Powerful Student Council during the war, as they scapegoated any other students they were unable to control (especially the 'five oddballs') and rewarded those who helped them. This created a massive power disparity as it was basically impossible for any idol unit not favored by the student council to achieve top ranks in competitions, impacting not only their popularity at school but their later career prospects. Those who were attacked by the student council banded together, and ultimately with their help, Trickstar was able to disrupt the system and massively curtail the student council's power. While during the War the atmosphere at school had been very hostile between different groups, this eased that tension hugely, and afterward, most characters are happy to make friends across old enemy lines.
- Students in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are divided into the titular three houses depending upon their region of origin: the Black Eagles for the Adrestrian Empire, the Blue Lions for the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, and the Golden Deer for the Leicester Alliance, with each house, specialising in certain weapons. You can recruit students to your house if you meet their requirements or your Support Points are high enough. Once the Time Skip occurs, everyone (with some exceptions) is united under your chosen house (or the Church of Seiros depending on your route).
- The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has Thors' Military Academy, a military academy in the empire of Erebonia that has been around for over 200 years, and has always had classes segregated based on social status. The plot involves the creation of Class VII, the first class in the academy's history to mix nobles and commoners. Besides Class VII, each year has five segregated classes, with three classes for commoners and two classes for nobles. The noble students tend to get a lot of perks that the commoners don't have access to, such as access to a salon, and summer vacation.