What is cultural capital? Satisfying Ofsted’s tone-deaf interpretation

Written by: Phil Beadle | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ofsted’s tone-deaf interpretation of cultural capital brings with it profound dilemmas for school leaders, who may be of a mind to resist… Phil Beadle, author of a new book on the topic, offers his plan to satisfy inspectors without having to turn things upside down

You only have to look at the Twitter hashtag #culturalcapital to realise just how much confusion there is about what it is (some even have it that it is capital cities engaging in culture!). There is also confusion about how schools should respond to Ofsted’s checking for provision of it.

Under the quality of education judgement, inspectors will consider how curriculum design gives all learners “the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life” (Ofsted, 2019).

Having spent the last six months reading around the subject, I can report that there is much that primaries can do to show that they have a seriousness of intent on this issue that reaches a little further than just pointing, in hope, at a visit to an art gallery (though, in truth, this would probably be enough to satisfy Ofsted).

The term cultural capital comes from French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, who, in his masterpiece La Distinction (1979), outlined how culture is used in society to distinguish the “refined” people and practices from the “vulgar” versions of the same.

Clearly, there is an uncomfortable classism lingering around these concepts, but that does not mean it has to be presented to the children in a classist way. What Bourdieu identified is that our cultural “tastes” generally correspond to our positions in the social space, so what Ofsted is trying to do, if one is feeling generous, is to democratise “high” or “refined” (or “legitimate”) culture and to bring a greater exposure to this for children so that they might have “an appreciation of human creativity and achievement”.

(If one wasn’t feeling generous, one might point out that this is really just elevation of the old over the new, and the white tradition as above all others).

The forms of high culture are located in visual art, classical music, theatre, poetry and classical literature, and refinement in these areas – and this is pivotal – is in the versions of culture that exalt the form of a thing as being more important than its function. Put simply, it means that the study of more abstract forms of culture carries more cultural capital than that which is merely representational.

Your teachers are probably already doing this in visual art. If you think about it, representational art is technically more difficult to pull off well than more abstract forms and so, for younger children, they are likely to achieve better results with abstract forms. So, study of Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Rothko, van Gogh counts as legitimate cultural capital, and children will be able to approximate some really quite well achieved versions of the work of such artists while also gleaning useful knowledge about this cultural form.

In terms of music, cultural capital exalts the classical over the modern or the popular. There are ways that you might acknowledge this: setting up a programme in assemblies where the children file into the strains of classical composers whose biographies are then introduced before the assembly itself starts. Alternatively, using classical music as a stimulus for creative writing so that the children write when the music is playing and then talk about their response to that music would be exactly the kind of thing guaranteed to get you a big fat tick in Ofsted’s cultural capital box.

Drama is more difficult in that abstract forms can be difficult for younger children, and I think it is beyond Ofsted’s expectations that year 4 are forced to sit bored and confused while they witness a four-hour long touring production of Waiting for Godot.

What might be a direction is in teaching them drama forms that they can use in their own productions or drama lessons. These, such as hot-seating, thought-tracking, split focus, frozen pictures and thoughts aloud, can be used at a relatively early age to ensure that the children’s drama work does not just revolve around boys play-fighting. They then might move their work in drama away from soap opera naturalism and re-enacting football matches or stuff that happened in the playground.

The intention of the Department for Education (DfE) with poetry would be that, of course, children study it and get the chance to write their own, but also that they are introduced to pre-20th century poets. It may be that primary is a bit early for some of these, but Blake’s Songs of Innocence could be useful source material, Wordsworth’s Butterflies is, I know, used successfully in many primaries, and there are elements of Keats, Shelley and Elizabeth Barratt and Robert Browning that are readily comprehensible to younger children (just be careful with the number of murders in Browning).

In terms of literature, it is more difficult, as the same “pre-20th century is good”, “white is good” maxims will be held to apply, and the idea that primary school children will be required to read 500-page Victorian novels stretches credibility a little. However, in terms of connecting children up to traditional literature there is a path from old that might be resurrected without it being too much of a bother. In The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, Jonathan Rose outlines the working class relationship with literature in the Victorian era: a relationship that was more intimate than our current one.

In that era Rose records that many working class homes had the same four texts: The Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. It would not be too much of an ask to think that primaries might be able to read at least the last three of these, perhaps in years 4 and 5, and that this would be enough to convince the forces arguing for a conservative curriculum that you have offered them enough of a token of conformity for them to leave you alone for a few years.

Of course, all this is to instate the white (chiefly) male traditional culture is the only valid one, and you might be of a mind to resist this as an ugly and characteristically tone-deaf imposition from a government whose authoritarianism has little sense of its own limits.

But there is value, perhaps, in squeezing the little out of this concept that is useful and offering it to children; again, perhaps, this path is more about a box-ticking exercise than it is about providing children with the abilities to criticise the cultural conservatism of a government run by ex-public schoolboys, but implementation of the above plan could be presented to any Ofsted inspector as being a cohesive response to the problem that cultural capital presents to primary heads – and it might even show that you understand the concept rather better than they do.

Alternatively, you might, if you were so inclined, want to teach the children about what is valuable in their own cultures. But that is not what cultural capital on the curriculum is about. What they are seeking here is to link children to the idea that traditional British white culture is the superior form and that children should be taught this.

There are cleverer, more complex ways around this, but the above would be a plan that would get Ofsted off your backs without you having to change the core business of what you do too much.

  • Phil Beadle is an experienced teacher, author, broadcaster and speaker. His latest book The Fascist Painting: What is Cultural Capital? Is out now. Visit https://philbeadle.com/

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