A Unique Child

What is ‘Cultural Capital’, and Why Do You Need to Know?

  • What is ‘Cultural Capital’, and Why Do You Need to Know?

The term may not be familiar to you, but it has great significance to our children’s life chances, explains June O’Sullivan…

‘Cultural capital’ is probably not something you find yourself talking about very often, but whether consciously or unconsciously it’s part of our everyday lives. Now that Ofsted has introduced the concept into its new Education Inspection Framework, however, it will become more conscious for many people.

Back in 2011, I started to investigate how I could put cultural capital at the core of the LEYF approach to learning. Our model is all about giving children from disadvantaged backgrounds the best early education possible. Having grown up in a working-class world, I knew that there was a world beyond me which valued things I didn’t even know about. When I arrived in England, those differences were more apparent, perhaps because I was an outsider. I couldn’t always name it but I realised that how you speak and hold your knife and fork, where you shop, how you name your children, what you do in your spare time and much more was associated with different values, some more prized than others. But it took me a while to recognise that knowing and understanding these subtleties could improve your access and opportunity to education, employment and success.

I started to read Bourdieu who confirmed my emerging views that in addition to economic and social capital, a person has ‘cultural capital’ – education, knowledge, language, habits – that are valued by society and once you know them, you can use them to advance your journey to success.

Reading him was very revealing and I started to think more clearly about how we could understand cultural capital in a way that could be integrated into our pedagogical model. I was particularly struck by the research about the importance of language. This confirmed that children who have a grasp of formal language, rather than being restricted to informal language, are at an enormous advantage in the education system. Low-level and limited vocabulary, and poor management of grammar, limits children and negatively impacts their expression of analytical and abstract ideas and arguments. We also know that reading is key to helping us transmit the content, vocabulary and styles of expression that help develop linguistic fluency, a fundamental skill and one that is well rewarded in school. As such, broadening children’s horizons and offering experiences that extend and stretch them and allow them to challenge themselves, would benefit them both in the present and future.

We therefore developed our spiral curriculum around language and the enrichment of language for staff and children. All our activities, provocations and lines of enquiry are designed to enhance vocabulary, build curiosity and engage children with delight and enthusiasm. According to Greg Bottrill (2018, p40):

“Children need an inspirational environment that changes and includes quirky objects and things that lie outside the ordinary. They need to hear words that are strange and alluring, hear stories that open up new worlds of imagination and wonder; they need drama and songs, adventure and the great outdoors. These are what you can bring every single day. Think like a child to be like a child.”

This approach often led to quite philosophical conversations with staff, some of whom confused this ambition with a rejection of their own experience. As a practical social entrepreneur, I cannot allow my indignation to get in the way of a child’s right to be able to switch codes. I was keen not to get too bogged down in the deeper elements of cultural capital and who values what and why. I recognised the status quo as having already placed a strong associated value on the formal speaking code and while like many social entrepreneurs I hold an unshakeable, ambitious optimism that I can disrupt some systems. I realise that we cannot overthrow them overnight, but children haven’t got time to wait for the great cultural capital revolution. So, pragmatism and praxis is my way forward.

Of course, cultural capital cannot be separated from the home learning environment. Every home has cultural capital, it’s just that society values some culture more highly than others. I received a good convent education and the nuns (for all their faults and fury) introduced me to Jane Austen, Michelangelo, Stravinsky and Miles Davis, extending the cultural capital I received at home.

Recently I met the preschools of North Devon; we had a lively conversation about the impending Ofsted inspection framework. We shared the view that cultural capital can be strengthened through the extension of language, and through the introduction of interesting resources, including food which would provoke greater conversations; more trips to the sea and maybe a trip to the annual air show. We all agreed was that cultural capital was not a list of cultural activities to be ticked off – an approach that would neither deepen children’s understanding nor strengthen their language, but might possibly alienate their parents.

Howard Gardner sums up cultural capital and cultural entitlement with the beautiful phrase that every child has a spark inside him and it’s our responsibility to ignite that spark. The importance of having a creative staff who can embellish and fascinate children by using creativity and imagination to extend their experiences and bring fun to their daily lives cannot be overstated. Extended language, arts and crafts, music, singing, poetry, drama, film making, drag queen storytimes, outings, galleries, museums, theatre, art exhibitions, science, shopping and eating – all can be daily activities which, with a stretch and a twist, we can open children’s sense to a new world.

June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation. Visit June’s blog or connect on Twitter @JuneOSullivan.