What is Cultural Capital?

By June O'Sullivan

| 10 April 2019

To be honest, cultural capital is not the usual conversation piece. But it is both a conscious and unconscious part of our everyday lives. Now that Ofsted has introduced the concept into the new Education Inspection Framework it will become more conscious for many people.

In 2011, I started to investigate how I could put cultural capital at the core of the LEYF learning approach. 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, hold your knife and fork, where you shop, how you name your children, what you did in your spare time and much more was associated with different values, some more prized than others. However, what took me a while to recognise was 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 pathway 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 reduces their expression of analytical and abstract ideas and arguments. We also know reading is key to helping us transmit content, vocabulary and styles of expression which helps develop linguistic fluency, a fundamental skill and one that is well rewarded in school. Therefore, broadening children's horizons and experiences which extended and stretched them and allowed them to challenge themselves would benefit them now and in the 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): "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 often led to quite philosophical conversations with staff who 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 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 its 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.

Last week, I met the pre-schools of North Devon - we had a lively conversation about the impending Ofsted inspection. We shared the view that cultural capital can be strengthened through the extension of language, 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. What we all agreed was that cultural capital was not a list of cultural activities that we ticked off which would neither deepen children's understanding, strengthen their language and 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 bring fun and extension to the children's daily lives. Extended language, arts and crafts, music, singing, poetry, drama, film making, drag queen story-times, food, outings, galleries, museums, theatre, art exhibitions, science, shopping and eating; all daily activities with which a stretch and a twist can open a new world for our children.

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website

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