A two-word term, invented in the 1970s by a French sociologist heavily influenced by Karl Marx, makes an unlikely entrance in Ofsted’s new framework [pdf] for the inspection of schools in England this week.
Each institution is now to be judged on the extent to which it builds pupils’ “cultural capital”. What exactly does that mean?
Users of the term, including the schools minister Nick Gibb and the former education secretary Michael Gove, suggest it is about ensuring that disadvantaged children are exposed to cultural experiences and background knowledge that those from better-off homes take for granted.
Should we abolish private schools? – video
But its introduction by Ofsted as part of its inspection checklist has triggered a fierce debate, with some suggesting the inspectorate is cementing cultural conservatism and writing off the experience of working-class pupils. Others have criticised its use by Ofsted as ill-defined, or a misunderstanding of what the term even means.
A supporter of the new framework told Education Guardian it was simply education being made available “for the many, not the few”, and that some critics were “middle-class professionals” who sought to deny cultural experiences to disadvantaged children.
“Cultural capital” was first set out in the late 1970s and 80s by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. While “economic capital” helped explain the material advantages that the middle and upper classes controlled across society, “cultural capital” facilitated educational inequality. So certain children were at an advantage at school because they had greater access at home to cultural knowledge and experiences.
The Department for Education has embraced the term, with Gove telling the Guardian in 2013 that “the accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility”. Gove and Gibb have also frequently used the similar phrase “cultural literacy”, which originates from the American educationist ED Hirsch, whom Gibb admires.
Ofsted’s new inspection handbooks for schools and early years settings now stipulate that no institution can be rated “good” unless its curriculum gives “all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils … the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life”. Its schools handbook links cultural capital to the current national curriculum, introduced by Gove, in setting out “the essential knowledge pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said”.
But some experts say English policymakers seem to have forgotten that Bourdieu was arguing that education deliberately entrenched inequality, and that this could not be changed within current society.
John Yandell, an associate professor of English at UCL Institute of Education, says the notion that schools should facilitate social change without taking into account the unequal society in which they operate is “extraordinarily naive”.
Prof Diane Reay: ‘It’s a crude, reductionist model of learning, both authoritarian and elitist.’ Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian
Diane Reay, a Cambridge education professor, says: “This new requirement is a crude, reductionist model of learning, both authoritarian and elitist. The key elements of cultural capital are entwined with privileged lifestyles rather than qualities you can separate off and then teach the poor and working classes.
Michael Young, professor of education at UCL Institute of Education, who is often seen as supportive of Gove’s traditionalist education reforms, says Ofsted has misunderstood Bourdieu if it is reading him as having argued that schools could eradicate inequality in wider society. “As was argued nearly 50 years ago by the sociologist Basil Bernstein, ‘education cannot compensate for society’. Only in a very different society would the aims of the national curriculum quoted by Ofsted become a reality,” he says.
Yandell says the notion of cultural capital implies that certain cultures are objectively more valuable than others. This is reflected in the current English national curriculum which, in emphasising “classic literature” but removing a stipulation that pupils analyse “writing from different cultures and traditions”, gives a message “about what is and what isn’t valuable: Jane Austen is, Chinua Achebe or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, not so much”.
For others, such as early years writer Juliet Mickelburgh, there is a worry that more “middle-class” art forms, such as classical music, could be over-emphasised at the expense of, say, rap music. “Is there a danger that working-class culture could be seen as inferior to middle-class culture?” Mickelburgh asks.
The teacher blogger Jen Beaton has written that “cultural capital” suggests “white, middle-class paternalism” and an older generation looking down its nose at Stormzy in favour of Mozart. The reality is that students bring their own cultural capital to lessons and that teachers can learn from them, too, she says.
But Clare Sealy, former headteacher of St Matthias primary school in Bethnal Green, east London, says this is the wrong emphasis. Cultural capital should be in the hands “of the many, not the few”, she says.
“When we shared Grieg’s [orchestral piece] In the Hall of the Mountain King with our inner-city, disadvantaged eight-year-olds, the class spontaneously cheered at the end. Yet many in education think such classics are not for the likes of this kind of child.”
Headteacher unions, however, are worried about the interpretation of “cultural capital”. Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says the term as used in the new framework is poorly defined.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says: “The difficulty with making it part of the inspection framework is that ‘cultural capital’ is an abstract notion and hard to pin down into a concrete definition that can then be consistently measured across schools.”
Meanwhile, the sociologist John Goldthorpe, a critic of Bourdieu, says the Ofsted handbook “may reflect someone’s vague recollection of what they were once taught at university”. But, he says, “I don’t see it as especially disturbing since the whole passage [in the handbook] is so vacuous as to be quite innocuous.”
So what is Ofsted’s intention? Sean Harford, its national director, says: “Our new framework puts the substance of education at the heart of inspections – not just test and exam results – because it’s a well-designed, well-taught curriculum that gives children the essential knowledge and cultural capital that they need to succeed in becoming well-rounded, informed citizens.”
Whether schools will change their approach – and how inspectors will then assess what they do – will be interesting to follow.
10 things every child should know
(according to the Civitas thinktank)
Year 1 Acorns; Brer Rabbit tales; continents; English civil war; jungles; Machu Picchu; Mexico; AA Milne; musical pitch; Henry Moore
Year 2 Tap dancing; Louis Pasteur; rabies; mosques; Hansel and Gretel; Atlantic Ocean; extinct animals and fish; Great Wall of China; dinosaur bones; Roald Amundsen
Extract, Civitas’s English translation of ED Hirsch’s guide for schools