Cultural Capital in the new Ofsted Inspection Framework

  19th May 2019

Ofsted has recently published its draft framework for early years providers which will be introduced from September 2019. The new framework primarily aims to tackle bureaucratic practice and has, therefore, been largely welcomed. The grading system remains unchanged, and the processes and criteria for inspectors to follow will offer few surprises to nursery settings. However, the introduction of Cultural Capitalis one notable addition to the new framework that has the potential to cause, at best, a great deal of confusion and inconsistency. Here we take a closer look at cultural capital and provide some insight to help nurseries interpret it.

What is cultural capital?

The term cultural capital was introduced by Bourdieu in the 1960s as a term to describe the collective attributes (manners, vocabulary, values, and so on) that people use to make progress in the world. It’s a bit like a bank balance. While more financial capital can take you further in the world; more cultural capital can too. It’s important to highlight that this is actually a very complicated concept, but below is an example of how cultural capital might influence a child’s trajectory.

Every day Elizabeth’s parents talk to her about a whole manner of things. She goes with her parents to family parties where lots of adults also talk to her. As a result of this exposure, Elizabeth will develop a large vocabulary. When Elizabeth is eventually through the other end of the education system (and possibly further education), her increased vocabulary will give her an advantage when she is looking for a job. A better vocabulary, incidentally, will also give her enormous advantages throughout her childhood, both educationally and socially, but I’ve greatly simplified it here to help illustrate the point. This improved vocabulary forms part of Elizabeth’s cultural capital that will lead to advantage, one way or another.

So cultural capital is a bit like a bank balance of knowledge, personal qualities, beliefs, values, ambitions, and so on, that a child acquires through all of their experiences growing up. The more they have, the more advantage they are likely to experience in our society.

What are the problems with including it in the new inspection framework?

Firstly, and let me be clear about this, increasing the cultural capital of all children is almost certainly a good way to reduce inequality in society and therefore a worthwhile and ethical pursuit. Ultimately this is the aim of Ofsted, and it is to be admired for that. It also wants to bring the early years framework in line with the National Curriculum which, although not explicitly, refers to (or attempts to refer to) cultural capital as: “the essential knowledge they [children] need to be educated citizens.” Ofsted wants nurseries and schools to be sources of cultural capital for children, particularly for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, because cultural capital is about so much more than just “knowledge”, education providers will never be able to fully compensate for the discrepancy in the transmission of cultural capital in the home. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try, but we do have to be careful with how nurseries are held accountable for something that they have only a limited amount of control over. We also have to be careful with how we actually measure cultural capital, its transmission (much of which is incredibly tacit), and what cultural capital is to be valued most.

There is a further issue: the recognition redistribution problem. In essence, we have to identify needs (recognition) before we can provide support (redistribution – of resources and so on). And this is more problematic than it first seems. Recognising children in particular ways can often lead to deficit modelling whereby the prevailing result is a lowering of expectations and overall quality of learning experiences. This has been widely found in educational research. In the case of cultural capital it might take the form of: “poor wee Timothy doesn’t even come to nursery with decent footwear on.” While there is clear justification for feeling sympathy towards Timothy, there is clearly an opportunity for this to lead to the notion that “he’ll not amount to much”. What Timothy really needs is the same high expectations and opportunities that children from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to experience.

So what can nurseries do about cultural capital?

Despite the problems associated with disadvantage, research has repeatedly shown that education can make a big difference. And the sooner we implement intervention strategies the bigger the effect. Therefore, nurseries are at the forefront in the fight to tackle inequality in society.

Ofsted refers to cultural capital in terms of ‘knowledge’, but this interpretation alone will not greatly influence society. There is a big difference between knowing something and actually believing in it enough to influence your behaviour and attitude. For example, knowing how to read is not the same as having a passion for books. However, it is worth considering what ‘knowledge’ is empowering in terms of cultural capital. For example, teaching children how to behave appropriately in different settings: good manners, acceptable things to say and do, how to interact with others, how to explore and manage their own emotions, how to take turns and recognise the feelings of others. These are all things that children with high levels of cultural capital learn from an early age.

Beyond knowledge, the innate beliefs, attitude and interests of a child are more powerful in terms of cultural capital. This might include: learning that books are sources of entertainment and information; doing maths for fun rather than because they have to; listening to a range of music genres and talking about where they came from; going to the theatre to watch a performance; walking in the park in the rain and learning the names of the trees; looking at the stars with wonder; asking big questions about the world. These are the sorts of experiences that will increase cultural capital for young children.

Since cultural capital is primarily transmitted from important adults in a child’s life (mainly their primary caregivers), it goes without saying the nursery staff will be the key to increasing the cultural capital in nursery children. And it seems logical to imagine that staff with greater levels of cultural capital themselves will be better at this. Therefore, it is important to recruit high-quality staff with a range of hobbies and interests that will enrich children’s experiences in nursery. Provide staff with lots of opportunities to talk to and play with the children in lots of different ways. An excellent, and often overlooked one, is mealtimes. Don’t just have staff serving food to children, get the staff sitting at the tables and engaging them in interesting dialogue.

Cultural capital is a highly complex idea that is very difficult to define concisely and even more difficult to measure. However, aiming to engender in children a sense of wonder, appreciation, and ambition is a very important part of cultural capital that Ofsted will definitely like.

Posted in categories: Nursery News, Ofsted, Play and Learning