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21 October 2019

Teaching “cultural capital“ in schools is not the path to a more equal society

The term, first coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, is enjoying a renassaince in the schools inspection body Ofsted's new assessment criteria.     

By Nathalie Olah

When the Financial Times calls for capitalism to be reset, as happened last month, you know the question of wealth distribution is firmly back on the agenda. But capitalism doesn’t only have to do with ownership, remuneration and taxation policies. A fierce debate recently broke out over the term “cultural capital”, after the school inspections body, Ofsted, announced plans to include the term as part of its assessment criteria. Why does this matter, and what effect does it have on education? 

The question of where one’s children are educated has a way of testing and exposing our political beliefs. Many people know of somebody whose left-wing credentials went out of the window when electing a private school education for their offspring. It was no surprise, then, that the announcement by Ofsted sparked a lively discussion.

On one side of the debate were those arguing the move would allow children from all backgrounds to access a wide and varied cultural education. Others argued that the term belied a paternalistic tendency on the part of an elite to further export and entrench its version of culture.

This suspicion sits far closer to the original definition of the term when it was first coined by the French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron in 1979. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, both argue that cultural and aesthetic preferences are dictated by class, and that ascension, or what is often termed “social mobility”, relies on one’s ability to decipher and mimic the cultural preferences of the elite. Since then, the term has been somewhat diluted, used to refer to almost anything that might boost a pupil’s likelihood of success in the workplace, or in a university admissions process. Could the debate be solved through a simple readjustment of terminology, then? Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, seems to think so.

“We’re not inspecting cultural capital directly,” she explains, somewhat surprisingly given that Ofsted chose the term to refer to the new assessment criteria. “We’re looking at whether a school provides a rich and broad curriculum. Take a hypothetical child from another planet, and assume that they’ve arrived in an English school. There’s a lot that they will get from a few years of schooling in English, maths and science – the stuff we’ve decided all children should know, which are absolutely valuable. But beyond that, there is a great range of stuff, which the more you know, the better equipped you will be to make the most of adult life.”

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All of which is to say that children require an education that goes beyond the straightforward point-scoring of the curriculum. School should be a means of leveling the playing field, and given that wider cultural understanding is favoured by university admissions processes and employers, the impetus is noble. But children don’t arrive there from another planet. They come from an almost infinite number of social, political and cultural backgrounds whose representation in the mainstream avenues of public life varies wildly. Spielman may argue that Ofsted’s decision is based on purely altruistic efforts to broaden pupils’ horizons, but cultural capital doesn’t mean culture in and of itself. Rather, it refers to a particular form of culture – one that translates into employability and desirability within a marketplace. If schools are to deliver on this promise, they will likely be required to prescribe a version of culture that pervades most establishment seats of learning, whose histories are steeped in imperialism and the exclusion of working-class and minority peoples. 

Beyond this, even some of the most fervent criticisms of Ofsted’s announcement have often fallen prey to the worst kind of stereotyping. In a recent op-ed on the subject, the argument was made that it was necessary to teach Mozart and Stormzy, as if these constituted the two cultural modes. Going back into history and beyond the canon in search of work that validates the cultural identities of people from post-industrial towns, or the Indian and Pakistani diaspora (or to go one step further and challenge the foundations of white western history) hardly seems to figure. When it does, it’s always in the most tokenistic and celebratory of terms.

“My observation of schools is that for the most part, they are prone to leaning in the opposite direction,” Spielman insists. “I don’t see a national teacher workforce that is there to entrench a narrowly white culture, for example. I see an immense amount of activity in schools that is very much about recognising and celebrating diversity and bringing a wider perspective, introducing literature from many countries.”

“Wouldn’t you want a 16-year-old to pick up a generalist publication like The Week and be able to understand and think about quite a lot of what was in it?” She pauses. “I actually printed out an article from the New Statesman today, thinking about this conversation, and there was a nice article about Abbey Road. So many of its main points are made more interesting through an understanding of the wider context, though: how vinyl records translated, for the first time, into almost anyone being able to buy music.”

Yet schools expected to develop and implement their own programmes of cultural capital will also be subject to the preferences and biases of the staff. I struggle to see how that elitism could be avoided in practice. What’s more, the assumption that simply including pop references will save cultural education from the paternalism it stands accused of is naïve. Phenomena like The Beatles and The Week obviously shouldn’t be excluded from cultural education, but deciding which forms of culture to include in the first place involves selecting some things ahead of others – and validating particular versions of culture. 

What’s more, by adding to the list of assessment criteria, the burden on teachers already faced with growing class sizes and falling budgets only increases. Spielman is keen to stress that the remit of the education sector hasn’t changed, and that the assessment criteria has merely evolved to match the pre-existing requirements.

“There’s no new expectation on schools here,” she says. “We’ve just expressed it in a slightly different way. For as long as I’ve been involved in education, schools have been expected to provide wider experience, extra-curricular development, trips, speakers… to take steps to broaden children’s experiences and exposure to life. We’re not asking schools to do more than they are already. Schools do lunchtime clubs, they do reading clubs. It’s about making sure that the conversation about what’s a good curriculum encompasses more than just ticking off a set of national curriculum boxes.”

If accounts from teachers are anything to go by, then meeting existing Ofsted criteria under the current circumstances already seems to constitute more than a full-time job. Talk of lunchtime and after-school clubs neglects to mention extra remuneration for teachers now required by the inspectorate to work beyond their designated time. What’s more, by stipulating the need for more school trips, for example, the Ofsted criteria seems to penalise schools from poorer areas where fewer parents will be able to pay. Just this week it was reported that parents in Tower Hamlets, London’s poorest borough, were struggling to pay not just for school trips, but basic supplies like food and warm clothing, as a result of the government’s pernicious Universal Credit scheme

Once again, the responsibility to solve a problem of structural inequality falls squarely with the individual, and those working at the frontline of public services that have been repeatedly squeezed by central government cuts. Education inequality is a real problem, but indoctrinating the masses into a version of culture ordained by a particular elite works counter to the project of building a fairer and more equal society.

Culture is necessary to a meaningful, happy and fulfilling life. Teaching cultural capital, by contrast, seems only to advance the idea that some versions of culture are more valuable than others.

Nathalie Olah is the author of Steal as much as you can, published by Repeater Books.

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