The following article comes from Associate Assistant Headteacher Isabelle Jones.

One of the aims of Education is to open pupils’ horizons, allowing their daily lives to collide with other people’s and challenge their expectations, thoughts and opinions. Although this experience is overwhelmingly enriching, some pupils will feel threatened by it, sometimes going as far as considering it a threat to their own identity. They will be rejecting anything they find unusual, reassuring themselves of their place in an imaginary cultural rank order rather than just contrasting and accepting differences with their own culture. By doing this, they will also reject that contrasting our identity against other people’s help us define and reaffirm what our cultural identity is.

How are we to know who we are if we do not know what makes us similar and different to others? One of the difficulties is that culture  and “cultural capital” mean different things to different people in different contexts. This is the main reason why schools need to support pupils understanding it so that they can make the most of the opportunities offered in school and of those that they will encounter in their future lives.

Cultural capital – What is it?

Culture can be defined as a process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development, the works and practices linked with this development, as well as a particular way of life linked with a specific group of people. It is important that pupils are exposed to all three cultural aspects in schools and that the specific groups of people it is linked to represent all sections of past and modern society.

However, OFSTED presents cultural capital in school as a combination of three distinct elements: the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, content that is “the best that has been thought and said” and actions to engender pupils’ appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

Cultural capital is also a well-established concept associated with French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). It is defined as a “familiarity with the legitimate culture within a society”, acquired through being part of a particular social class and refers to what is often called “high culture”.

This definition of cultural capital is a very political and classist definition, whereas OFSTED’s definition also refers to the broader concept of cultural literacy, which is more likely to help pupils develop global citizenship. Cultural literacy, a term coined by American educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch, is all about the ability to understand the traditions, regular activities and history of a specific group of people from a given culture.

In this sense, building “cultural capital” is about widening horizons and not invalidating other cultures, whether high or popular culture or culture originating from different countries.

As Pierre Bourdieu favours Culture with a capital C, this can leave us with nothing to hang this Culture on for our pupils. As we are building our “cultural capital curriculum” and developing our pupils’ knowledge, it is important to recognise their own culture as a very important starting point for their schema to be organised and built upon.

In adopting this approach, cultural capital can be embedded in the curriculum through all the subjects rather then added as a bolt-on feature, mostly because it is part of an inspection framework.

Building cultural capital is essential to teach acceptance and the skills needed for pupils to become citizens able to participate fully in our modern global multicultural societies.

Building cultural capital – Why it is important

Building cultural capital is essential to teach acceptance and the skills needed for pupils to become citizens able to participate fully in our modern global multicultural societies. If pupils lack exposure to other cultures, they will tend to be judgemental and consider differences in terms of “them and us”, sometimes rejecting “them” strongly. This is likely to affect their life chances as well as their ability to work in multicultural teams.

Some pupils will need a gentle reminder that other cultures refer to real people who do not need to be judged or “converted” but accepted as they are. After the initial reaction and discussion about acceptance, it is our duty to present cultural aspects that do not only challenge us but also enrich us through this process of recognition and acceptance.

Cultural capital is a key to a different world, whether it is popular or higher culture, and understanding this new world enriches us personally and gives us power. Hence Bourdieu’s use of the word “capital” as something that can be accumulated, like economic capital. The power Bourdieu alludes to is also linked to “social capital”, the networking that can be made more effective by using common cultural capital references.

Developing our pupils’ cultural capital will contribute strongly to defining and strengthening their own personal and cultural identity. This is especially important for our pupils, whose own personal identity is being developed during their teenage years. So, how can this be done?

Developing Pupils’ Cultural Capital in schools

We need to start identifying opportunities to build Cultural Capital in the classroom through subjects and experiences outside the classroom. In particular, opportunities can be highlighted in teaching topics and modules, cultural calendars as well as trips and visits.

This can be done by completing a curriculum audit and including opportunities in schemes of learning, cross-curricular and extra-curricular plans.

In addition, some opportunities might be incidental, but they will need to consistently challenge stereotypes, exceptionalism and ethnocentrism. It is particularly important for teachers to be inclusive and promote diversity in their cultural references; so there is a real need to challenge our own perceptions and widen our own cultural references.

Another effective way to build cultural capital is to start with the school community: staff, children and parents.

Global citizenship is not just a feeling of belonging anywhere and everywhere whilst being aware and proud of our origins. It is the realisation that different cultures have more in common than they have differences that set them apart. Developing cultural capital as a curriculum, building on common foundations, will not only enable the knowledge to be memorable but it will also help foster inclusion and tolerance in our pupils.

Isabelle will be joining the Virtual Education Conference ‘Building cultural capital to develop global citizenship’ on Thursday 29th September at 4 pm BST (GMT+1). Click here to register your attendance.


Isabelle Jones

Isabelle has been teaching French and Spanish in a range of school settings in England for the past 30 years. She is currently a member of the leadership team at The Macclesfield Academy in Cheshire. She is a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching (FCCT) and a member of ALL’s national council, the UK’s largest Association for Language Learning. She regularly speaks at language conferences and training events and enjoys sharing ideas and resources on Twitter @icpjones She is passionate about teaching languages and culture, evidence-informed teaching practice and professional development.

Follow Isabelle on Twitter – @icpjones