If you’re a teacher, educational leader or even parent, the chances are you’ll be familiar with the term ‘cultural capital’.

Once a phrase used primarily in the realms of sociology, cultural capital now forms part of the new Ofsted framework, released in September 2019.

The requirement for educational settings to provide learners with “the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life” has had many leaders asking questions and deciphering what steps they should take next.

This guide to cultural capital aims to define what exactly cultural capital is and how schools can implement it into their curriculum.

Bourdieu’s ‘Cultural Capital’

To understand Ofsted’s intention behind the use of ‘cultural capital’, we must first go back to what the phrase’s original meaning and use.

Cultural capital in sociology comprises an individual’s social assets (education, intellect, style of speech, dress, etc.) that “promote social mobility within a stratified society“.  The term was coined by 1970s French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who developed the idea as a way to explain how power in society was transferred and social classes maintained.

Bourdieu believed that cultural capital formed the foundation of social life and dictated one’s position within the social order. For Bourdieu and Marx both, the more capital one has, the more powerful a position one occupies in social life.

However, Bourdieu extended Marx’s idea of capital beyond the economic and into the more symbolic realm of culture. He broke it down into three distinct types: embodied cultural capital, objectified capital and institutional cultural capital. He emphasised that cultural capital is intrinsically linked to economic and social capital, in that access to economic and social capital allows greater access to cultural capital.

Therefore, the cultural capital definition could be explained as an indicator of how well an individual is able to succeed academically and engage in wider society.

Cultural Capital & Ofsted

In September 2019, educational watchdog Ofsted created a new inspection framework that requires schools to develop their students’ cultural capital.

Specific notes within the framework reflect on ‘Personal Development’ and how children are to learn skills and realise talents, develop character and resilience, and learn about British values, diversity and mental health & well-being, all of which are encouraging.

What is cultural capital in education?

Cultural capital, when used in relation to education, promotes the idea that schools should support the modern definition of what ‘cultural capital’ means. That is an individual who is knowledgeable about a wide range of culture, is comfortable discussing its value and merits, and has been given a vast array of experiences and access to skill development.

Bourdieu identified three sources of cultural capital – objective, embodied and institutionalised. In education, this could look like:

Objective: cultural goods, books, works of art;

Embodied: language, mannerisms, preferences;

Institutionalised: qualifications, education credentials.

Therefore, cultural capital in education could potentially be realised through all aspects of the curriculum – exposing students to a large variety of subject areas and arts; promoting character-building qualities that lead to creating well-rounded, global citizens, and of course the more typical expectations of education, which is to provide young people with recognised and meaningful qualifications that will open up doors to paths in later life.

Despite some criticisms over how Ofsted will, in practise, inspect each school’s ‘cultural capital’ teaching, many experts believe that this is a positive move forward. If nothing else it suggests that Ofsted are looking not just at one aspect of a curriculum, measured in terms of exam grades, but are taking on a more holistic view of education that encompasses many angles.

Following the feedback and requests for elaboration from teachers, Ofsted has since itself clarified that: “Inspectors aren’t inspecting ‘cultural capital’; they’re looking at whether the school provides a rich and broad curriculum. A great curriculum builds cultural capital.”

This suggests, therefore, that leaders need only focus on the quality and variety of their school’s curriculum, if they hope to equip their students with the ‘cultural capital’ Ofsted is referencing.

In the Schools Inspection handbook, it is outlined:

As part of making the judgement about quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Ofsted's understanding of this knowledge and cultural capital matches the understanding set out in the aims of the national curriculum. It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

Helen Moylett, independent early years consultant and writer for Early Education, comments that: “It is interesting that the term [cultural capital] always is always bracketed with “knowledge”. That may be because, despite Ofsted’s claim to be using a definition found in the national curriculum, the national curriculum (NC) does not refer explicitly to cultural capital. The relevant aim of the NC (as quoted directly in the schools inspection handbook above) is:

The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

“So it seems that Ofsted have added to the NC aims by deciding that “the best that has been thought and said” plus “an appreciation of human creativity and achievement” equals cultural capital.”

Cultural Capital for EYFS

Cultural capital in early years comes with its own set of rules and interpretations.

Whilst the general idea is still the same, of course implementing a certain level and quality of curriculum for children under five is bound to look quite different.

Ofsted outlines its expectations for EYFS setting by saying:

  • Children are starting EYFS with a range of gaps in their skills and knowledge
  • Ofsted wants to see that schools are fully aware of these gaps and have carefully considered what learning opportunities and experiences their curriculum needs to include to support all children to achieve.

Ofsted’s Deputy Director for Early Years Education, Gill Jones, said: “Inspectors will consider how well an early years setting uses the EYFS curriculum to enhance the experience and opportunities available to children, so that they gain the essential knowledge that they need to prepare for future success.”

By using their knowledge of the children to plan activities and learning opportunities across the EYFS curriculum carefully, and being prepared to share this information, this will support teachers’ discussions with inspectors.

According to the Early Years Alliance, there is “no need to over-think cultural capital – it is the exciting and stimulating activities that you do with children every day”.

These may include:

  • finding books on a child’s favourite topic
  • creating role-play activities that further their interest in a particular idea
  • taking trips to the park
  • or organising visits from community figures such as the police.

What is important is that teachers feel confident explaining why they have chosen a particular activity and how it will benefit the child’s learning and development.

In an early years setting, cultural capital means that each child arrives with a number of experiences and ideas based on their own personal circumstances.

Michael Freeston, Quality and Standards Director at the Early Years Alliance, also talks about the importance of supporting children’s personal and social development. In an early years setting, ‘cultural capital’ means that each child arrives with a number of experiences and ideas based on their own personal circumstances.

“Explaining how you improve cultural capital can be considered similar to demonstrating how your setting ‘promotes British values’,” he says.

“We soon came to realise that if we were supporting children’s personal, social and emotional development then we were in effect promoting British values.”

Children and teacher in field

What does Cultural Capital mean for schools?

Dr. Tony Breslin, independent researcher and policy analyst, claims that the curriculum has been conspicuously absent from several previous iterations of the Ofsted framework, and curriculum’s return has rightly grabbed the headlines in the ensuing discussions.

“Too often, at least in policy discourses, the curriculum is considered to be little more than a list of subjects,” he says.

“I prefer the definition that Barry Dufour introduced me to at the University of Leicester over 30 years ago: curriculum is the total learned experience of the child: formal, informal, within the classroom and beyond.

On that note, he goes on to reference three overarching themes that schools and leaders need to think about if they are to ensure their curriculum delivers cultural capital.

1. ‘Relearn’ the deeper language of curriculum

Schools need to relearn the deeper language and substance of curriculum, and to rebuild a culture in which curriculum-literacy is core to our theory, discussion and practice.

Schools and teachers can do this by asking the following questions:

  • Why do we teach what we do?
  • Does it enable our pupils to progress to the destinations that meet their interests and aspirations?
  • How do our pupils experience this curriculum?
  • What’s it like to be a pupil in our school?

2. Prioritise the experience of the learner as key

The experience of the learner is key to the new framework, as it ought to be for any educator. Breslin says don’t expect the inspectorate to simply pore over a school’s written policies; instead, expect them to engage in extensive conversations with students, study their books and test their knowledge. Schools need to ask themselves:

  • Is the curriculum broad and balanced?
  • Is it coherent and well-sequenced (not ‘tractors this week, weather next’ in Luck’s apposite phrase)?
  • Is it sufficiently knowledge-rich (mastery over memory), such that pupils are developing the cultural capital necessary to prosper in the changing world they inhabit?
  • Is it age and needs appropriate?
  • Is it relevant and bespoke, while remaining aspirational and challenging?

3. Can results of curriculum be evidenced by learning outcomes?

As always, the challenge is to evidence a school’s curricular impact in the outcomes achieved by students. Inspectors will want to know what progress pupils are making, where ‘progress’ refers to longer-term knowledge and internalisation.

Students need to be building a body of knowledge that they are able to commit to long-term memory, draw from and build on. Schools could possibly implement an assessment structure that enables them to test for this themselves, at various points throughout the school year.

4. Promote a varied curriculum

Finally of course (and this goes without saying), schools need to first and foremost promote a varied curriculum that taps into many of the social, moral, spiritual and cultural elements that help a child be prepared for the next step in their lives – whether that’s secondary school, university or a career.

This can be achieved in a multitude of ways, such as:

Chess tournament fundraiser
  • Providing plenty of opportunities to explore new activities, through lunchtime and after-school clubs
  • Teaching children about a wide variety of arts including literature and music
  • Prioritising school trips and international travel
  • Providing plenty of opportunities for questioning, curiosity and creativity.

You can read some examples of how schools and leaders are fostering cultural capital in their students below.

Cultural Capital Examples

In Kapow Primary‘s A Practical Guide to Ofsted and Cultural Capital for Primary Schools, they outline some useful examples of what developing cultural capital in primary schools may look like.

Students playing cellos

Approach the arts

One way to approach cultural capital, and perhaps the most obvious, is through the arts. This can be a mix of traditional and modern to expose children to a variety of cultures.

Lunchtime & after-school clubs

Lunch-time and after-school clubs are an opportunity for you to introduce a variety of activities to help develop your pupils’ cultural capital hands-on.

School trips

According to a UK government report, children aged 8 to 15 years enjoy entertainment and culture- and sports-related activities the most out of all leisure activities.

School trips can be a great way to ensure children can experience new things and spend time outdoors, and they don’t have to break the bank either. Some budget-friendly and free ideas include:

  • Local markets
  • Free museums
  • Local historic sites
  • Physical activities
  • Forest walks

School trips can also be fantastic opportunities to increase students’ awareness of global issues and cultural awareness – especially when involving international travel. Cultural programmes such as TEP’s sister school partnership programme opens doors to meeting many aspects of Ofsted’s framework, not least of all cultural capital.

Inter-generational activities

Cultural capital could also be interpreted as exposing children to people of all ages. Encouraging activities where children have to ask questions about their own families is an important way of handing down wisdom and knowledge.

Students can also get involved with local communities and learn from a different generation by visiting a retirement home and allowing the children to ask the residents questions about their lives. They could even become pen pals!

Use your pupil premium

Pupil premium was introduced in 2011 to support schools in encouraging social mobility. As schools can choose how to spend pupil premiums, using it to help develop cultural capital is more than a good idea.

Some creative ways to use your school premium whilst developing cultural capital include:

  • Funding school trips and international experiences
  • Investing in technology to help children learn e.g. tablets
  • Funding language classes
  • Providing music lessons
  • A nutritionist for children to learn about healthy eating, etc.

In a teachers’ discussion over on the TES forums, many educational professionals shared the ways in which they like to develop their students’ cultural capital. School trips were a frequent priority.

“Where I work, cultural capital has been interpreted as making sure all pupils go on at least one trip into London each year,” said one teacher, “Trips to museums, art galleries, concerts, the theatre, opera and ballet have all featured.

“As we are in London we can travel free on TFL. Many places are free or the school has tried to subsidise entry fees.”

Another teacher highlighted the importance once again of a strong and varied curriculum.

“They always look at personal development as this is a category under the new framework. This is my area and I’ve had a mock deep dive with our SIP,” they said.

Jodrell Bank space station

“She made a big thing of how we embed SMSC across the curriculum as well as how we build cultural capital. She suggested that we take the grade descriptors from the framework and map our whole curriculum against them.”

Is your school making strides in the promotion and development of ‘cultural capital’? We’d love to know about it – join in the conversation over on Twitter @TrueEducation_P.