What does Ofsted mean by 'cultural capital'?

'Cultural capital' is a term on everyone's lips, says Adam Riches – but it isn't just about sending pupils to see a play

'Cultural capital': Building a student's cultural capital is about more than just giving them a book, says Adam Riches

"Cultural capital" is a term that’s bandied about quite freely now that it features so prominently in the Ofsted school inspection framework. 

Teachers, consultants and everyone in between talk about how learning can enhance and be enhanced by the coveted cultural capital.

But how many of us teachers actually know what it is? Or, more importantly, know of its origins? 


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The issue is that cultural capital is a part of a much bigger picture that we must understand if we are to provide students with a varied and broad curriculum offer that prepares them for the world.

The importance of cultural capital

It is widely accepted that a person’s level of cultural capital is a huge indicator of how well they are able to succeed academically and engage in wider society. 

This isn’t a new concept and Ofsted certainly didn’t coin it.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdeiu originally came up with the concept of a person possessing “capital”. Bourdieu (1973, 1986) explores the theory of cultural capital and highlights the link between an individual’s background and their access to knowledge. 

Bourdieu (1986) breaks capital into three distinct types; embodied cultural capital, objectified capital and institutional cultural capital.  

He emphasised that cultural capital is intrinsically linked to economic and social capital. Access to economic and social capital allows greater access to cultural capital and Bourdieu (1973) observed that, as a side effect, cultural capital is often linked to social class and as a result reinforces social divisions, hierarchies of power and inequality within society.

Eradicating inequalities

Within education, we obviously aim to reduce and, in time, eradicate inequalities. But improving an individual student's cultural capital isn’t a matter of giving them a book or sending them to see a play. 

And, in turn, building on their social capital doesn’t just mean giving them a talking frame so they know how to interact. For schools to truly provide the required skills and experiences, social capital and economic capital must be considered and taken into account, as well as cultural capital.

In Cultural Literacy (1988), ED Hirsch succinctly summarises that “to be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world”. But alongside this, as teachers, we must not overlook the importance of social capital and the opportunities and skills required for students to be successful in the delivery of themselves. 

Exposure not only to culture but also to situations in which they might not have previous experiences is of paramount importance to their ongoing successes. 

Moreover, having the understanding that economic capital is intrinsically linked to the level of a student's cultural and social capital keeps at the forefront of our minds the differences in experiences that our disadvantaged children may have had. Although it may not be glaringly obvious, across a class there can be significant variations.

Well-informed individuals

It follows, therefore, that, as teachers, we need to ensure that along with teaching the content of the curriculum, we are enabling students to function as well-informed individuals well after they leave school. 

It’s a huge job, but without the guidance of their teachers, some young people have very little cultural and social input from elsewhere and therefore may miss opportunities others are able to access and make decisions that are less informed than they could be.  

Now more than ever, the job of the classroom teacher is of such high importance with regard to filling the gaps that students have. 

Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, specialist leader in education and head of English. He tweets @TeachMrRiches

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