Ofsted, social mobility and the cultural capital mix-up

Cultural capital and cultural literacy risk becoming the latest buzzwords to plague education, argues Mark Enser

Marble statue of a man with his hand on his head

Like many people, I am a collector. But while others collect sports memorabilia, signatures of the rich and famous or historic timepieces I like to collect educational buzzwords. 

It may seem that these would be a poor thing to collect – that there are far too many of them to have any rarity value. Ah, but they move so fast that it is a true challenge to collect them all. Blink, or go on a week's holiday, and you might miss one. 


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While they are fresh, however, they are everywhere and they soon get attached to anything a school or teacher was going to do anyway.

For a while "every child mattered" and not a trip, reward, or piece of career advice was allowed to go past without finding this stapled to it. 

Next up, if you stopped by a pupil's desk and said “nice work but underline your title” you were actually using "assessment for learning" (soon to be replaced by a new delightful buzzword "responsive teaching" – look out for it, and enjoy).

Thinking of ensuring your class know what the word "evaluate" means? Well done, you are using "tier two vocabulary". 

New buzzwords

Usually the buzzword collector has to be content with picking up just one new phrase every year or so but every so often we are treated to a buzzword bonanza. We are living in such times! Two new buzzwords that I have been enjoying lately are "cultural capital" and "cultural literacy".

Before they fade into the background once again and join such terms as PELTS and "functional skills" in obscurity, it is worth considering what they mean and whether they might have any actual relevance to what we are doing in the classroom.

Cultural capital

Capital plays a central role in Marxist thought. The ruling classes have access to capital and so can use this to control the means of production. The labouring classes do not have access to capital and so cannot own their means of production and so lack power.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu took this idea further and suggested that that the ruling classes not only had access to physical, financial capital but also to cultural capital. This cultural capital includes things that signify someone’s position: their mannerisms and habits, their style of dress, their responses to social cues.

Cultural capital could include clichés of which spoon to use with which dish in a restaurant or which way to pass the port after a meal. 

As mentioned, a feature of educational buzzwords is they get attached to things they probably shouldn’t. So eyebrows were raised when Ofsted said it would be looking at cultural capital and defined it as “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”.

While a reasonable (if contested) statement about the purpose of education, I am not sure that Bourdieu would have recognised this definition.

There is certainly a debate to be had about whether schools should be seeking to increase their pupils' cultural capital. One argument is that, like it or not, having this makes a difference and if we want to give our children as many options as possible for the future cultural capital will help.

The other side tends to argue that pupils already have a culture and they shouldn’t need to mimic someone else's to feel successful. 

This debate will rumble on until this buzzword fizzles out. 

Cultural literacy

One annoyance to the true buzzword aficionado is that people will insist on confusing our treasured terms. We see this with cultural capital and cultural literacy where there is a tendency to use terms interchangeably. 

Whereas cultural capital is the accumulation of cultural wealth, cultural literacy is better understood as having the cultural knowledge to comprehend a text. For example, as I am writing this the lead story on The Guardian is that Michael Gove refuses to rule out ignoring any law designed to stop a no-deal Brexit. For someone to be able to read and comprehend this article they would need to know what “crash out of the EU” meant, what “prorogue” is, and even the term “pig in a poke”.

The concept of cultural literacy probably has greater day-to-day importance for teachers than cultural capital. Studies have shown that pupils will remember far more of a text if they understand the context, regardless of how well they can read each individual word. Cultural literacy means that the things we encounter simply make more sense.

This might have important exam implications with the examiner’s report for AQA English Language pointing out that: “What characterised the best of these responses was the ability to engage with the ‘big ideas’: politics, economics, gender, aesthetics, class, morality, psychology and even philosophy.” 

A knowledge of these things is unlikely to come simply from their English language classes but from an understanding picked up either from their life outside school or in their other subjects. Pupils whose lives are rich with discussions about such matters are likely to have greater cultural literacy and do better in this exam than those who rarely encounter discussions on these “big ideas”; and so what happens in school is likely to be even more significant. 

Even popular culture can’t be fully appreciated without cultural literacy. The Police make mention of “that book by Nabokov”, Rage Against The Machine allude to the methods of the Ku Klux Klan with their line: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses”, and Stormzy's song Crown nods to "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" by Shakespeare.

The problem with buzzwords

Both cultural capital and cultural literacy are useful ideas for teachers, especially those involved in curriculum planning. The problem with them becoming buzzwords is that they’ll get thrown around and misused and soon lose all meaning.

And this is the tragedy of buzzwords. They are just useful ideas that grew too fast and flew too close to the sun. I’ll leave you with that snippet of cultural literacy. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

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