How to avoid a deficit approach to cultural capital

Being aware of the challenges faced by students is vital, says Julian Grenier, but we must beware of seeking out issues where none exist

Julian Grenier

Magnifying glasses

My friend Kim is one of the best early years educators I know. 

She’s tough and takes everything in her stride, with endless enthusiasm. 

Her no-nonsense attitude to life goes along with great depths of affection and tenderness to children.

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If your three-year-old came into nursery upset, you’d want Kim to be there for them to make everything better.

So I was surprised at a conference we attended together last year, to find her looking sad and fed up at the coffee break. She had walked out of the workshop on cultural capital and was taking a moment to gather herself.

She was upset by the repeated references to the “families in social housing”. 

The workshop leader explained that “these families” did not take their children to art galleries, parks or the local museum. 

Kim brought up her three children on a council estate in North London. She is proud of her family. But now, her usual ebullience had drained away.

Cultural capital is important, and it’s true that many children miss out on important early experiences. Research suggests children from poor backgrounds have poorer home learning, too. 

Word gap worry

You may have heard about Hart and Risley’s 30-million word gap: how a child from a “welfare family'” in the US hears 30 million fewer words by their third birthday than a child from a professional family.

But are those findings right? Other researchers have not found anything like as big a gap.

It is possible that the presence of researchers with clipboards in children’s homes affected what went on, for example. 

Perhaps some families feel comfortable being observed like that, while others clam up and feel embarrassed? We can never observe behaviour neutrally.

Our observations and our perspectives always affect what we see, and how we interpret it.

That is why so many problems can arise when we use a deficit model. If we are looking for what is wrong with a child, then that is exactly what we will find.  

Ambitions and dreams

Instead, we should be asking families about what they want for their children. We should talk about their dreams and ambitions. We should think about how we can work together to make them real.

There is little doubt that it’s important for children to have rich experiences in their early years. Nothing could ever rival those wondrous moments when a child sees a pile of leaves in the forest for the first time. Or when a child gets up close to the mellow sound of a cello or the sweet melody of steelpan.

That is why I am very much in favour of the current emphasis on cultural capital. But we must celebrate all the different cultures of children in early years settings. 

We should talk less about what children lack, and more about how we can help them take on and relish every cultural experience the world has to offer.

Dr Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre. He co-leads the East London Research School

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