cultural capital inequality

The Introduction of cultural capital within the Ofsted Inspection Framework

PAG Staff Uncategorised

“Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”

Raymond Williams, 1983.

Cultural capital, a famous sociological term, has recently made an unusual entrance into the Ofsted vocabulary. Ofsted introduced the term in their new Education Inspection Framework (EIF), their School inspection Handbook, and the Early Years inspection handbook, implemented from September 2019-onward. In the School Inspection Handbook for instance, Ofsted writes:

 “[I]inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Our understanding of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ is derived from the following wording in 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.’”[1]

All institutions, in the UK, will now be judged on how they contribute to provide every pupil with cultural capital. This fits in the broader attempt from Ofsted to take a step away from purely quantitative assessment towards the inclusion of more qualitative judgments. The term has been previously used by Nick Gibb, current Minister for School Standard and Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education. They believe it is the duty of schools to ensure disadvantaged pupils are equally exposed to “cultural” experience as pupils from more privileged backgrounds.

Ofsted defines their understanding of cultural capital by quoting the national curriculum reform introduced by Michael Gove in 2014. However, the curriculum framework published by the DfE does not actually refer to cultural capital. The reference point Ofsted uses from the national curriculum is the following sentence: “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[2]. Additionally, to the fact that cultural capital is not mentioned, the phrasing leaves wide margin for interpretation.

If the introduction of cultural capital in the assessment guidelines of Ofsted seems, at first glance, as a positive move towards less arbitrary judgment methods and towards more inclusivity in the UK education system, the consequences of such utilisation and understanding could be completely different. The initial person introducing the concept of cultural capital was Pierre Bourdieu, a famous French sociologist. However, the way Ofsted uses the concept takes a completely different path from what Bourdieu wanted to express the first time he used the term in the 1970s.  

Cultural capital in Bourdieu’s mind: a sociological concept where the education system perpetuates social reproduction

In Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of cultural capital, everyone possesses “cultural capital”. All forms of cultural capital are valid, however society itself tends to value some cultural capital more than others. Middle and high-class culture are on a large scale more highly valued, and more easily convertible as economic capital in the labour market, through the appreciation for example of a particular mastery of the language, knowledge of particular literature, art, music, etc. This led Bourdieu to believe that education is directly participating to the perpetuation of such structure: by devaluating the working-class culture, education reinforces inequalities, as some have to learn ones’ culture to succeed in society while others already possess it.

Referring back at Ofsted usage of cultural capital, it is interesting to see that their definition of it could actually perpetuate what Bourdieu was originally denouncing: putting the burden of assimilating a particular cultural capital on one fringe of society, while dismissing this same fringe’s own cultural capital. Helen Moylett, Early Years Consultant and writer, wrote that

such cavalier use of this term is likely to perpetuate deficit models of working-class children (and many other children who are not white, British and middle class)[3].

Helen Moylett is amongst others who have expressed their concern with the introduction of Cultural capital in Ofsted’s assessments. Dr John Yandell and Professor Michael Young warned that thinking schools could facilitate social change without taking into account the unequal society within which they operate was fundamentally flawed and “extraordinary naive[4].

Nick Brook (Deputy General Secretary of the National Association of Headteachers) underlined that the way cultural capital was used and phrased by Ofsted in their new framework was poorly defined. The absence of a clear definition could easily lead to contentious understandings.  

The danger of putting inclusivity even further at risk

With Ofsted’s definition of cultural capital, we can wonder what is meant when arguing all children should access “the best that had been thought and said” – a phrasing that does not go without reminding us of debates about the accepted canons of English literature, or the contested emphasis on British history in Gove’s reform of the national curriculum[5]. What is the best that has been thought and said, and to whom? Such questions bring us back to an old debate about the concept of ‘cultural literacy’ coined by ED Hirsch, an American author who had an important influence on Michael Gove’s thinking.  Many denounced Hirsch’s concept as “reductive, parochial, and inherently culturally biased toward white establishment canon of literature and history[6].

The danger of Ofsted current use of cultural capital is to write off the experience and culture of a particular group of children, while the DfE has been calling for the promotion of inclusion and diversity within schools

In 2013, Gove declared: “The acquisition of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility[7]. When comparing Gove’s understanding of cultural capital to Bourdieu’s approach, this raises key questions that should be kept in mind when promoting “cultural capital for all” in schools’ providing: Do we want everyone to be middle class, or do we want schools to be more inclusive for all children. This connects to another important debate on what is the main goal and purpose of the curriculum and education more broadly. The danger of Ofsted current use of cultural capital is to write off the experience and culture of a particular group of children, while the DfE has been calling for the promotion of inclusion and diversity within schools. There is a real need to adopt more empathetic and enlightened approaches to support children from different backgrounds in a way that will not risk furthering the inequality gap even more[8]. If, as of today we have not seen many concrete changes made to fit this new Ofsted requirement, it is worth keeping asking these questions. Using cultural capital to promote diversity, equality, and inclusivity could end up bringing society one step forward followed by two steps backward, in a world where these principles are already fragile enough.

Anna Fosse-Galtier.


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[1] Ofsted. (2019). School Inspection Handbook, [online], p43. Available at:  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/828469/School_inspection_handbook_-_section_5.pdf [Accessed 19 Oct. 2019].

[2] Department for Education. (2014). National curriculum England: Framework for key stages 1 to 4, [online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4/the-national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4 [Accessed 19 Oct. 2019].

[3] Moylett, H. (2019). “Ofsted’s thinking on Cultural Capital””. Early Education. [online]. Available at: https://www.early-education.org.uk/news/guest-blog-helen-moylett-ofsted%E2%80%99s-thinking-cultural-capital-some-concerns-and-questions [Accessed on 29 Oct 2019].

[4] Mansell, W. (2019). “Ofsted plan to inspect ‘cultural capital’ in schools attacked as elitist”. The Guardian, [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/sep/03/ofsted-plan-inspect-cultural-capital-schools-attacked-as-elitist?CMP=share_btn_tw [Accessed on 29 Oct. 2019].

[5] The Secret Teacher, “The Emphasis on British history is depriving students of balance”, The Guardian, [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/may/26/secret-teacher-history-bias-school-fear-student-future [Accessed on 29 Oct . 2019].

[6] Watson, S. (2018). “Educating the Working Class” in I. Gilbert The Working Class, poverty, education and alternative voices. London: Independent Thinking Press, 544p.

[7] Walker, P. (2013). “Michael Gove reveals the inspirations behind his reforms”, The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/feb/05/michael-gove-inspirations-jade-goody [Accessed on 29 Oct. 2019].

[8] Gilbert, I. (2018) The Working Class, poverty, education and alternative voices. London: Independent Thinking Press, 544p.