Ramble #4 Breaking the Cultural Capital Gap

The new focus on curriculum should not only make schools give all students the knowledge they deserve; but the experiences too!

I first encountered the idea of cultural capital during A level Sociology in a module on Education. At the time I did not give it much attention but now, as a teacher, it has come back to the forefront of my mind as schools shift focus to their curriculum as result of the new OfSTED framework.

In his essay, ‘The Forms of Capital’ (P.Bourdieu, 1986, Readings in Economic Sociology, 280-291, Blackwell Puplishers LTD.) French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu outlines 3 different types of capital or ‘assets’ of a person that can promote social mobility:

1. Economic Capital – the amount of money and valuable assets available

2. Social Capital – Network of friends and associates. Think Bullingdon Club and the people who get internships at white-collar companies because of who they know.

3. Cultural Capital – A persons education and experiences that can be used as a springboard for a higher social status.

While the first two types of capital are out of control of schools, there is much that can and should be done by schools to help bridge the ‘cultural gap’.

Students of more affluent parents, from the moment of birth, are immediately put at an educational disadvantage. They passively inherit a greater form of cultural capital due to parental expectations of eductions and the educational experiences that naturally come with being from a family with disposable income. These experiences, which brings benefits of greater knowledge and social-norms, have led researchers to conclude that ‘cultural capital is transmitted within the home and does have a significant effect on performance in the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) examinations.” (Alison Sullivan, Cultural Capital and Educational Attainment, Volume: 35 issue: 4, page(s): 893-912, Issue published: November 1, 2001)

The change in the OfSTED inspectors framework is leading a growing change in how schools see what is taught. Senior leaders across the country are going to have to have a serious conversation about what it is that is taught. The breadth and depth of knowledge that we will hopefully expect students to learn will go someway in levelling out the ‘knowledge gap’ that naturally arises between disadvantaged students and students of more affluent parents. While these strides should be welcome, disadvantaged students owning knowledge won’t be enough. If we are to truly help attainment of the most disadvantage, we not only need to to decide what they know (and make sure they know it) but also, in my opinion, what ‘experiences’ they will encounter throughout their time at school. Enhancing the curriculum with rich, meaningful experiences will help close the attainment gap and yes, they should then write about those experiences. And yes, those experiences should, where possible, interlink with the breadth and depth of knowledge that they experience. E.g. When looking at changes within living memory in KS1, we look at beach holidays. Studying beaches in the classroom, then visiting the beach to experience more purposeful learning will help give all disadvantaged students the same experiences as those experienced by more fortunate students. The key to this being successful is that these trips are not to be seen as a ‘jolly’. There must be an extension of learning and an application of knowledge that has been learnt in the classroom.

After going on this experience and extending/applying their knowledge, students should then write about it. In 2012 the Educational Endowment Foundation funded a small study(https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/ipeell/?mc_cid=ed4f7e756c&mc_eid=9fa8d9188) showing no less than an increase of 9 months in additional progress in writing. While an attempt to scale that up has not been as successful for a host of reasons, they conclude that: ‘If we consider the results specifically for pupils with low prior attainment using IPEELL for two years, both trials show positive results…’

The focus on curriculum should help educators make smarter choices in the learning experiences that we offer the students in our care. By linking out of school experiences to a knowledge rich curriculum can help restore some balance to the ‘cultural capital gap.’ Giving all students from all backgrounds a bases of experiences to draw upon and relate the knowledge they have acquired from other parts of the curriculum.

In the slide below, taken from an OfSTED presentation entitled ‘Working towards the EIF 2019: OfSTED’s approach,’ they lay out some factors linked to curriculum quality.

Here, they lay bare the importance that curriculum delivers a filling of the gaps of pupil’s background. For me, as a curriculum lead, this means ensuring that our curriculum will not only spell out the minimum we want them to learn, but the minimum they will experience. And that sharp focus is what I hope this new framework will deliver to close the attainment gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged.

Here I lay out just some ideas that I believe every child should experience before leaving primary school to break the ‘cultural capital‘ barrier, it is far from exclusive and others may disagree. That’s fine.

◦ A sit down meal in ‘restaurant’ conditions

◦ A purposeful visit to a museum

◦ Visit London

◦ Watch live music

◦ Attend the theatre

◦ Go to a beach

◦ Visit a farm

◦ Visit an art exhibition

◦ Visit local areas of interest

◦ Have the opportunity to learn an instrument

◦ Watch professional sports


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