Cultural capital matters

There’s some really thought-provoking tweets and blogs on Twitter this morning around the topic of cultural capital. Lots of discussion about the name itself but more importantly about what its intention is.

The question “Isn’t the whole ‘cultural capital’ thing one big middle-class crusade?” was posed here in response to an article that highlights criticism from OFSTED in regards to schools that have a three year GCSE route – the argument being that many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds need longer to successfully complete GCSEs and that these qualifications are often the only thing these pupils can bring to the table at interview.

There’s a lot to unpick here and I’m not based in a secondary school so don’t feel informed enough to explore the GCSE element but am really interested in the idea that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds often have little in the way of knowledge of the wider world and so are further disadvantaged when it comes to attaining a job.

I work in a primary school in a disadvantaged area and have certainly experienced a lack of knowledge of the wider world impacting negatively on the outcomes of pupils, particularly Pupil Premium pupils. A few years ago, one of the Y2 SATs reading papers had a section about swimming lessons. Only one child in my class had swimming lessons and many had never been to a swimming pool I found out afterwards. I was quite shocked at the time that this potentially lifesaving skill wasn’t prioritised over expensive gadgets such as X Box etc.

When I later read about the effect of prior knowledge on reading comprehension I knew we had to do something about it as a school. We had already begun redesigning our curriculum and had decided to put educational trips and visitors at the core of the curriculum, as the majority of our children had very limited life experiences. Now I suggested we take it a step further and build in ‘experiences’ or short pre-teaching sessions before whole class reading lessons to enable children to understand and access the text better. This followed a session that I’d seen Ashley Booth deliver at a conference where he shared his experiences of planning in these pre-read sessions. I wouldn’t call these pre-teaching sessions teaching cultural capital though, just good teaching – identifying gaps in essential knowledge and filling them in order to make it easier to access the learning.

What is cultural capital then?

Penny Rabiger quotes Pierre Bourdieu’s definition in her great blog about cultural capital:

“The cultural knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us”

This absolutely resonates with me. As an educator, I’ve spent my career trying to open the eyes of the children I teach, to the fact that there are so many opportunities open to them if they’d only show an interest.

Oprah Winfrey talks about a choice she made as a child one day when she was watching her grandmother hanging out clothes and the washing line and telling her she’d have to learn how to do it. Winfrey says she knew at that moment that her life would not be the same as her grandmother’s.


Thank you to @pitchup_nurture for sharing this quote, by Oprah Winfrey, in the thread this morning. I think it will be one that I return to again and again.

The idea of all of my pupils taking responsibility for themselves and their learning, showing an interest – developing botheredness (to coin Hywel Roberts’ phrase) – is an elusive goal. I get so frustrated sometimes, with many of the children I teach who just sit in lessons without really engaging. Some will shrug when asked a question as though it has nothing to do with them. It’s not uncommon for me to go on a big rant about how this is their opportunity and how they’re just letting it slip through their fingers. I explain to them how school is a two-way thing – that I can do my best to teach them but if they’re not bothered about learning it’s not going to happen. I talk about how learning is in layers and reflect on what they learnt in infants and how each year the work we do gets a bit harder and explain that if they have gaps in their learning it makes it more difficult to learn later. I sometimes go on to explain that if they have gaps in their learning when they go to secondary school it’s going to make it difficult to pass their exams and that in turn will make it difficult to get a job; and explain how money, although not guaranteed to make you happy, gives you options.

Although education might not be valued by many of our school community, having money is certainly valued by our parents – where having the latest mobile phone or expensive clothes demonstrates your status in the community. However, I teach in an area where shop lifting, drug dealing and other illegal ways of getting an income are rife – this is part of the cultural capital of many of our children. If you come from this background where money is attainable without a job are you likely to view education as important if you’re told that it will help you to get a job? Probably not. How can we reach those children? Is wanting to reach those children part of a middle-class crusade?

I was talking about my frustration in the staffroom only this week and our NQT said “Maybe ranting isn’t the best way” and she’s right of course. Showing children that there is another way is part of a huge piece of work that needs to be done on a whole school level and involves all stakeholders. In my opinion, it’s no use getting an agency in once a year to do a session with the children about their futures and ticking the ‘raising aspirations’ box. We must work continuously with parents and children to show them that learning is a life-long journey and can actually be enjoyable as well as open up opportunities – rather than just something you put up with at school. Reading for pleasure is key to this as it offers an insight into so many other possibilities but that is another blog!

People get hung up on what we should teach children as ‘cultural capital’ but perhaps what is more interesting than what should we be teaching is why should we teach it? Some people argue that it can’t be taught but I disagree. I see cultural capital as experiences and knowledge that in some households occur naturally anyway, for example watching an orchestra perform live, visiting a castle, learning about great playwrights like Shakespeare, taking part in debates.

It all sounds a bit middle class doesn’t it and I suppose it is. Is it a middle-class crusade then? Possibly. Will it completely level the playing field? Of course not but it’s a start. As teachers we should be trying to provide as many situations as possible for children to experience the opportunities available to them. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds often don’t experience these opportunities outside of school. I would like to change that. Why should going to the opera or the ballet be reserved solely for the elite?

I believe all children have the right to these experiences. All children should be taught the knowledge but more importantly the attitude that makes them more employable. And this should happen not because OFSTED have said it should but because it’s the right thing to do. Oh, and it also has an impact on educational outcomes.


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