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Why Ofsted got their buzzwords wrong: cultural literacy not cultural capital!

It feels like one of the most incendiary ideas coming out of the new Ofsted framework is the prescription for schools to teach ‘cultural capital’.

In the leading bullet under the ‘intent’ section of the new Quality of Education judgment we have:

"leaders take on or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) or high needs, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life"

In foregrounding the development of knowledge within the curriculum Ofsted have done a powerful, important and appropriate thing. However, against a backdrop where ‘culture’ means many things to different people, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this has been the cause of some consternation for many involved in and around education.

In this blog, I want to talk about three things. Firstly, about why Ofsted’s use of the term ‘cultural capital’ was a mistake; secondly about why Hirsch’s term ‘cultural literacy’ is far more useful; and finally, about how teaching the knowledge needed to decode cultural material is enormously important.

Why not ‘cultural capital’?

Cultural capital is a Marxist concept intended to help explain inequalities in society. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu suggested that just as financial or economic capital establishes educational inequality (for example through access to private schooling), so too does cultural capital (meaning the habits, knowledge and interests of the advantaged classes which allows them to achieve much better academically).

However, Michael Gove said in 2013:

"The accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility."

While Gove was far from the first contemporary educational commentator to use the phrase, this quote is representative of the rebranding of cultural capital over the last decade: from a concept describing something limited, exclusive, and greedily hoarded by society’s privileged few which further enables social inequality, to something that everyone can get a piece of if they just work hard enough and that schools can transmit.

In many ways, when looked at through this lens, the cultural capital debate does feel like a Conservative attempt to move the blame for social inequality away from a rigged system (as forwarded by Bourdieu and others) and back towards some deficits of the working classes. Is it any surprise that some left-wing educational commentators have rallied against the concept? For me, repurposing the concept was always going to spark confrontation.

Moreover, regardless of the shifting usage of the phrase, it’s also worth noting the inescapable connotations of inequality and elitism here anyway: the term ‘capital’ refers to wealth and value. This leads to my second criticism of the framing of cultural capital: it’s all too easy to understand cultural capital as artificially valuing some ‘culture’ over other ‘culture’. There have been plenty of attacks on the current framework as rooted in a ‘middle class’ understanding of the world and as being set up in a way that will explicitly disadvantage the disadvantaged further. Again, I don’t think this is particularly surprising when we are being asked to rally around the standard of ‘cultural capital’ which implies that the culture we are teaching is inherently more valuable than alternatives.

In essence, ‘cultural capital’ both starts a fight which doesn’t need to be fought (and we know how much some in education enjoy looking for a fight) and is too open to accusations of cultural superiority.

Why ‘cultural literacy’?

In contrast to Bourdieu’s critical theory of cultural capital, and in fact much more in line with what Ofsted and its outriders’ elaborations on the term suggest is their intended meaning, is E.D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy. Hirsch’s concept is defined as:

“To possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern word”

What I like about Hirsch’s concept is that at its heart is not a judgment about value but one about utility. Being ‘culturally literate’ is about having the knowledge needed to engage efficiently and easily with society. It’s about having the kind of broad but shallow knowledge that helps one to decode and understand the various domains of society.

This is what is meant (or should be meant) when discussing the kind of knowledge needed for educational and social success. The entire intellectual and moral foundation for Ofsted’s focus on a broad curriculum is the (in my view valid) suggestion that to succeed in education and life you’ll most probably need to know lots of stuff about lots of things, lest you find yourself facing a situation which assumes a basic understanding of physics, or Shakespeare, or geographical processes, or the habits of despotic kings to do away with their wives.

Cultural literacy however doesn’t necessarily suggest that the elements of cultural literacy are superior or of greater moral value than alternative ‘cultural literacies’. Indeed, Hirsch’s original text on the topic was subtitled ‘what every American needs to know’ and he explicitly states that the content of what constitutes cultural literacy will change across time and place and society (albeit change slowly).

Just as there is a mainstream ‘British cultural literacy’, I don’t think it’s relativist or inappropriate to acknowledge that there are other kinds of cultural literacy too. If we forward a definition that includes ‘the ability to understand and engage with the cultural products of a specific culture’ then we can acknowledge that there exists cultural literacy in Grime, or Cricket, or videogame culture. In each area there exists a broad foundational base of knowledge necessary in order to successfully engage and get ahead. Try becoming a Youtube blogger in the mould of the most successful with no meaningful knowledge of Minecraft or Fortnite.

However, regardless of whether some literacies are better than others (relativism vs absolutism is irrelevant here) I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim that school is not the place to teach ‘niche’ literacies. In the same way that we want students to be able to write in formal English and interpret sophisticated language, it is right that schools are responsible for transmitting the kind of mainstream cultural literacy that will provide the most utility to young people entering this society at this moment. There’s neither value in teaching literacy for a utopian future nor a dead past, and it’s questionable as to whether we should accept the relativist argument that children from ‘different cultures’ should be excused from their induction into the mainstream culture of the society in which they are living which will likely provide them with the greatest number of opportunities. Yes, you can certainly succeed in the UK without cultural literacy, but it’s a lot harder to fail if you have it.

Concluding thoughts

This may all seem rooted in semantics, but ideas matter and without careful definition and elaboration they can quickly morph into dangerous fads and buzzwords which lead to unintended consequences all over the system.

What I’ve tried to establish here is that:

  • There are inherent problems with promoting ‘cultural capital’ as a central aim for schools, which invite confrontation

  • The term ‘cultural literacy’ is much more appropriate and when communicated sensibly is insulated from many of the most pervasive critiques of the cultural capital agenda.

In my next blog, I’m planning to look at some of the challenges of teaching cultural literacy in schools. My intention after that is to put together a series, looking at what might constitute a ‘culturally literate’ curriculum that builds cultural literacy through different subject areas. I’m hoping to bounce ideas around with subject specialists to this end.

Further reading:

E.D. Hirsch – Cultural Literacy, What every American needs to know

Mark Enser wrote a fantastic piece in the TES that does a much better job than me identifying the differences between the two concepts:

Christine Counsell has written an incredible series of blogs about why it’s so important to lead a knowledge-rich curriculum, among other things:

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