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The theories behind Cultural capital

Cultural capital is a term that has recently been added to the 2019 Ofsted draft inspection framework as part of the ‘Quality of Education’ judgement.

In the Early Years draft Inspection Handbook1 it states:

‘Inspectors will evaluate how well leaders ensure that the curriculum they use or create enhances the experiences and opportunities available to children, particularly the most disadvantaged. Some children arrive at an early years setting with poorer experiences than others, in their learning and play. What a setting does, through its curriculum and interactions with practitioners, potentially makes all the difference for children. It is the role of the setting to ensure that children experience the awe and wonder of the world in which they live, through the seven areas of learning.’ (p. 31)

In footnote 16, on the same page, is this definition: ‘Cultural capital is the essential knowledge that children need to be educated citizens’

In the Ofsted Draft Inspection Framework for the National Curriculum2 the term appears as follows: ‘Leaders adopt or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life’ (p.10).

The term and its appearance in the draft framework made me curious to know more. When I explored cultural capital in greater depth I was left with some thought-provoking questions. I thought I’d share them here, along with the research that led to them.

What is Cultural Capital?

The term first appears in the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1960s and ‘70s to explain his research into the differences in

educational achievement aCultural Capital 1.jpgmongst pupils in France.

He defined Cultural Capital as the knowledge, skills, values and experiences that provide advantage and help you to get ahead in life and especially in education. Cultural capital builds up over time.

Bourdieu also used the term Habitus. This is the cultural framework for a child’s family and environment – the norms, values and ideas that are associated with your social class. Your ‘habitus’ is the place you feel most comfortable, where you have a sense of belonging.

Contributions to cultural capital include the books you read, the music you listen to, whether you go to museums or art galleries, the kinds of after school activities you do. These are generally considered ‘middle class’ experiences.

Throughout this article I refer to ‘lower class’ and ‘middle class’. These are the terms used in the original Cultural Capital theory and in subsequent discussions and research. Although these terms may feel clumsy in 2019, they are helpful in identifying the differences for low income families compared to those with a higher income. As educators working with children and families we have a responsibility also to recognise the importance of diversity when we are reflecting on cultural capital.

It is worth noting that Bourdieu has been criticised for not being specific enough in his evidence base for his explorations of Cultural Capital: ‘Bourdieu assumes much of what he sets out to prove’ (Sullivan p.8). Much of the fleshing out of his theory has been done by subsequent researchers. 

Is our Education system inclusive or exclusive?

In the original theory of Cultural Capital, Bourdieu argued that the education system was run by the middle class and was therefore, by default, constructed to work in their interests. He believed the result of this was that ‘the school fails to give explicitly to everyone that which it implicitly demands of everyone’ (Sullivan p. 24).

Bourdieu suggested the education system assumed everyone has cultural capital (the accumulation of certain kinds of experiences), but also that actually the majority of children don’t. He concluded that working class children were at a disadvantage from the beginning and that the system was failing them.

These are uncomfortable statements for those of us who work in education, not least because we can still see today the lack of fairness in society, the huge differences in starting points and opportunities for children, that Bourdieu was writing about in the 1960s.

The ‘added value’ provided by the accumulation of ‘middle class’ experiences that are considered to contribute to cultural capital was recorded in research by The Sutton Trust3. They found that A-level students were much more likely to get good grades if they read books at home for pleasure; grades also improved if they had visited museums, galleries and went on outings with their families or schools (Lee Elliot Major, 2015). These extra experiences are puzzle pieces that find a perfect fit in the education jigsaw. So, what happens if some of your puzzle pieces are missing? Or if they are a different shape and don’t fit the gaps in the jigsaw?

Ofsted’s emphasis on curriculums that build children’s cultural capital within settings and schools underlines the need to close the attainment gap and level the playing field.

As practitioners, perhaps we need to reflect on our own understanding of the education system and what it might look like to children, from a vast array of backgrounds and experiences, who look to it to provide learning. Is it as welcoming and equal as we would like it to be?

 What is the ultimate goal of education?

Ofsted’s draft framework states that educators should aim to build a curriculum to give learners ‘the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life’. This made me wonder, how do we define ‘success’?

Perhaps the aim of education is to enable children to be more upwardly mobile? In a recent article for the TES4, Dr Bernard Trafford, a head teacher in Newcastle upon Tyne, quotes the leader of Inspiration Trust, Dame Rachel De Souza, as wishing to deliver ‘an education as good as the education kids get at Eton and Harrow…our children need to know what people in the club know’. The implication being that the aim of education is to push higher and reach further. This has echoes of Bourdieu’s belief that there is a particular language used by those who have cultural capital, one that belongs to those in the know: ‘Bourdieu states that cultural capital consists of familiarity with the dominant culture in society, and especially the ability to understand and use ‘educated’ language.’ (Sullivan, p. 3).

There is a fine line between opening up class barriers or simply colluding with the system. We know there is disadvantage andwe know there is a gap to be closed in educational achievement. However, we need to be mindful that we don’t impose a middle-class version of success onto children. Success can, and should, come in many shapes and sizes.

Then is the aim of education to provide rich and broad experiences? This feels like stating the obvious, but Ofsted’s own research showed concerns about a narrowing of the curriculum. In her summing up of this research5, Chief Inspector Amanda Speilman said that ‘at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.’

The what and how we teach becomes a setting or school’s contribution to the cultural capital of its children. In the EYFS Draft Inspection Framework handbook, Ofsted have resurrected an old friend – ‘awe and wonder.’ It states that ‘it is the role of the setting to ensure that children experience the awe and wonder of the world in which they live’ (p.31). This is all about a culture of curiosity provided by magical moments that can happen to children (and adults!) of any age. It can widen horizons, tap into potential and encourage ambitions.

An engaging curriculum should be a tool kit for children containing all the equipment needed to find secret doors in familiar worlds and to open doors of opportunity into worlds they didn’t even know existed. This may or may not result in children reaching a higher level of attainment, fitting their puzzle pieces into the gaps in the jigsaw, but it will excite and engage them and plant a seed of curiosity for their future.

Who decides what we value as Cultural Capital?

To quote the footnote from the EYFS draft handbook, ‘Cultural capital is the essential knowledge that children need to be educated citizens’. So, who defines the activities and content that children need to build their cultural capital?

According to Cultural Capital theories, some activities are considered more valuable than others. Classical music is generally thought to have greater capital than rap and Thomas Hardy’s novels would have more to add than graphic novels. Going to museums and galleries, learning a musical instrument, reading at home, are all considered contributors to a child’s cultural capital. The Sutton Trust suggests that schools’ pupil premium money could be used for enrichment vouchers to offer middle class experiences to those who actually need them most’ (Lee Elliot Major, my italics). But is there a danger that working class culture could be seen as inferior to middle class culture? And what about the variety of experiences brought by children today who are living in our multi-cultural society?

Cultural Capital 2.jpgSome schools already have lists of books that should be read or music to be listened to – a uniform ‘cultural cannon’ (TES). Dr Bernard Trafford warns against confining the experiences we offer to children in this way, acknowledging that ‘defining cultural capital is fraught with pitfalls’ (TES). He points out that children in 21st Century Britain live in a constant mix of cultures and backgrounds. The challenges for educators in this multi-faceted society is enormous and this presents a risk that we may either ‘develop a ‘this is the Western European canon you must absorb’ approach or over dilute the curriculum and pay ‘lip-service to every other cultural tradition that we encounter in Britain’ (TES). 

Perhaps what is important is not what the experiences are but the fact that the experiences happen. We need to be aware of not placing a judgement value on any single activity. What matters most is that children have an opportunity to expand their knowledge and their tool kit, and that they get to celebrate their ‘habitus’ as well as being exposed to the ‘habitus’ of other people.

Is cultural capital inherited?

Research shows that cultural capital is accumulative, and that this accumulation for the child starts with the cultural capital of the parent: ‘The view that cultural capital is transmitted from parents to their children is strongly supported in the case of pupils’ cultural activities ‘(Sullivan, p.22). The effect of this on the capital of the current generation of children is twofold:

1.       The amount of cultural capital a parent has could influence their engagement in offering their child the opportunities and experiences that currently define cultural capital. However, academic John Goldthorpe points out that disadvantaged households often value education and provide relevant cultural resources. As educators, we need to reflect on how we define an involved parent: ‘constraining the definition of what it means to be an involved or engaged parent may fail to consider the needs, perspectives and offerings of many low income and/or ethnically diverse families.’ (Crozier, 2001 from Miller, Hilgendorf & Dilworth-Bart, p. 330). By redefining our expectations of what an engaged parent should be, settings and schools can make a positive difference to children’s educational experiences.

2.       Research shows that a parent’s cultural capital affects how they interact with the setting or school, and how staff interact with them, which in turn affects the child’s cultural capital. Mothers with a higher level of education and income (so a greater level of cultural capital) are more likely to act as ‘agents’, approaching the school with questions and information, whereas mothers with a lower level of education and a lower income are more likely to be ‘recipients’, accepting knowledge and information from their child’s school but not participating (Miller, Hilgendorf & Dilworth-Bart, 2014). The same research showed that across the board, nearly all parents wanted a two way relationship with their child’s school, but that staff were perceived to be more dismissive of the attempts by lower income, less educated mothers to develop a dialogue: ‘home school connections are not just based on a family’s desire to be involved, but also the rules and structures that mould the types of involvement facilitated and valued by schools.’ (p.331). This is something we can change, by recognising the ways in which we may be failing to connect with families and looking for ways to improve.

We need to be creative, consider all the ways we can communicate with parents, seek their opinions about their child and facilitate shared experiences. In this way settings and schools can exchange a ‘closed shop’ version of cultural capital for an ever expanding and welcoming one.

Will the addition of cultural capital into our education vocabulary be a good thing?

That’s the big question! Ofsted’s focus on widening the curriculum and on supporting disadvantaged children ‘so that they will flourish in the future and not be left behind’ (Speilman) is hugely encouraging. As educators, we will need to be mindful not to fall into the trap of uniformity as we address cultural capital in our settings. We need to understand the origins of the term and its complexities. Used wisely, cultural capital can help us value where children are coming from while facilitating and celebrating where they could go next.

  1. EYFS Ofsted draft inspection handbook 2019
  2. Ofsted draft inspection framework 2019
  3. The Sutton Trust, Creating Cultural Capital, Lee Elliot Major, 2015,  https://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/creating-cultural-capital/
  4. Dr Bernard Trafford, TES, 2017 https://www.tes.com/news/theres-more-cultural-capital-just-teaching-kids-hold-their-own-club
  5. HMCI's commentary: recent primary and secondary curriculum research, Amanda Speilman, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-commentary-october-2017


Karl Thompson, 2016: https://revisesociology.com/2016/04/05/cultural-capital-and-educational-achievement/

Cultural Capital and Educational Attainment, Sullivan. A, 2001, Sociology 35 (4) 893-921

Cultural Capital and Home-School Connections in Early Childhood, Miller. K, Hilgendorf. A, Dilworth-Bart. J, in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, Vol 15 Number 4, 2014.

Juliet Mickelburgh
After doing her PGCE, more years ago than she’d care to mention, Juliet taught in Nursery, Reception and Year 1 classes in South London and East Sussex. She has also worked as a Learning Mentor. She was originally a freelance writer for the FSF and had a children’s picture book published. Juliet is now officially employed by the FSF and Tapestry, working in product support and as an Education Advisor. Along the way she has accumulated a husband, some children and way too many pets!

Edited by Rebecca

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