Cultural capital has no impact on exam results, according to a recent report in the British Journal of Sociology of Education. Cultural capital — familiarity with “high culture” attained outside of the classroom — means you know who Bach is and you don’t feel like an impostor in an art gallery. First and foremost, however, it is a buzzword bandied about in educational and political circles. It’s an invisible key that’s supposed to open doors. It means you have something to chat to your Oxbridge interviewer about, something in common with your workmates in the City.
The thing is, cultural capital is a pristine idea that obscures a grubby truth. Because cultural poverty isn’t the problem. Real, material poverty is. Nobody is against taking poor kids to see art or watch cricket, but the point is that it took a pandemic and a young black footballer to push the government into feeding the poorest children during the holidays. What you’ll chat to your Oxbridge pals about is irrelevant if you can’t afford the train fare to the interview, or if your school is so underfunded that there’s nobody to help you apply.
When I think of cultural capital, I think of preparing my GCSE English class for a creative writing exam: a question asking students to describe a day at the seaside. After an hour of trying to coax metaphors about the sea from my perplexed year 11s, one girl finally raised her hand and asked, “Miss, what’s it like at the seaside?” Most of my students, it emerged, had never been there. Many had never left our town. Faced with this question in a real exam, how could my students compete with those whose minds overflow with memories of summers spent on exotic beaches?
And yet, the reason my students hadn’t been to the seaside wasn’t that their lives lacked cultural capital. It was that parents working back-to-back shifts don’t have time to take their children on holiday. Many families have to decide between heating and eating before the prospect of piano lessons can cross their minds. It’s convenient for us to lament the lack of cultural capital that prevents state school kids from becoming bankers and barristers, but wouldn’t those same kids have a far better shot at it if they came to school with a full stomach or if the government hadn’t cut their mum’s Universal Credit? The notion of cultural capital creates a convenient scapegoat for the government’s chronic underfunding of public services — the legacy of a decade of austerity.
If there is a cultural capital problem, it is by design. A mere few months after the announcement of the “levelling up” agenda, the government introduced new student loan rules that could see 55 per cent of the poorest students barred from university. Financially supporting poor students to get a degree is far more important than taking them to the Tate Modern.
It’s not that cultural capital isn’t important. Young people in poverty deserve theatre visits and tennis lessons as much as Etonians, not just because those things build confidence and resilience but because they allow them to be children — a luxury many don’t have. However, young people in poverty also deserve full bellies and shoes without holes. If the government cares about building cultural capital it has to start by addressing that.