Cultural capital

This article by Early Education Associate Anni McTavish explores the term “cultural capital”, and what it might mean for early years practitioners and their settings.

Following the publication of the new Education Inspection Framework (EIF) in May 2019, the updated Ofsted School and Early Years (EY) Inspection Handbooks came into effect from September 2019. These contain essential information for all Ofsted-registered settings, including nurseries, pre-schools, playgroups, and childminders.   

One of the key aims of the new EIF is to focus more on how settings are using their curriculums to enhance experiences and learning through the EYFS, as well as continuing to reduce the amount of unnecessary paperwork: “We will want to see if young children – particularly the disadvantaged – are thinking and talking about a wide range of experiences that prepare them for what comes next.” (Gill Jones, Ofsted Early Education Deputy Director, speaking in Nursery World Magazine, May 2019)

This revised approach to curriculum (what educators are teaching), is reflected in the new Ofsted judgement: “Quality of Education”.  Also included in this judgement is the term cultural capital, which is defined as: “the essential knowledge that children need to be educated citizens” (Ofsted EY Inspection Handbook 2019, p31). It goes on to say:

  • Cultural capital is the essential knowledge that children need to prepare them for their future success. It is about giving children the best possible start to their early education. As part of making a judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider how well leaders use the curriculum to enhance the experience and opportunities available to children, particularly the most disadvantaged. (ibid 142 p31)

Understandably, this new term has provoked plenty of discussion and questions about what it will actually mean for practice. How is ‘cultural capital’ different from the sort of enriching experiences provided by skilled practitioners, who know their children well, and have high aspirations for their learning and development?

There are some concerns that the term cultural capital, without a clear meaning or intention, may encourage negative attitudes or assumptions linked to class and ethnicity (Cowley, 2019; Mickelburgh, 2019; Moylett, 2019). ‘Essential knowledge’ seems to imply experiences such as: visits to the theatre, art galleries, museums or listening to classical music, which are traditionally middle-class, and may be judged as having a higher value than others.

What is Cultural Capital?

The term cultural capital is not new. It is a complex theory that comes originally from the field of sociology, which involves the study of society, including relationships, social interactions and culture. It is important to recognise that everyone has cultural capital – that is – knowledge, skills and behaviours, and that these accumulate over time through many different experiences and opportunities. Cultural capital is understood to contribute to ‘getting on in life’ or ‘social status’, i.e. being able to perform well in school, knowing how to talk in different social groups or societies, accessing higher education and being successful in work or a career.

Perhaps, most importantly, definitions of cultural capital might recognise and reflect on one of the core principles of the EYFS, the Unique Child: ‘every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured’ (EYFS, 2017). Ofsted also want to reassure practitioners that this new term is not about having to create a ‘cultural capital display’, or about a new area of learning called ‘cultural capital’, or indeed about attending a special training course on cultural capital (Ofsted Webinar, June 2019). They are clear that: ‘It is the role of the setting to ensure that children experience the awe and wonder of the world in which they live, through the seven areas of learning.’ (143 p31 Ofsted Early Years Inspection Handbook, Sept 2019)

Rather than thinking of cultural capital as a thing that must be ‘given’ or ‘taught’, it might be more helpful to think first and foremost about the cultures, languages and traditions that children and their families bring, and how we might value and celebrate this.

Valuing the cultures of children and families

Every child and family who joins a setting will have their own knowledge and experiences that will link to their culture and wider family. This might include: languages, beliefs, traditions, cultural and family heritage, interests, travel and work. Research shows that when children and families’ cultures are valued, both the child’s experience of learning and progress can benefit (Husain et al., 2018, p. 4 and Gazzard, E. 2018 in Chalmers, H. and Crisfield, E. 2019)

Getting to know children and families and building warm, positive relationships will be crucial. When families feel comfortable and settled, they are far more likely to share who they are and what is important to them. Inviting parents to talk about their dreams and aspirations for their children will be part of this.

Observing, and joining-in with play, and talking and chatting together, will support practitioners to understand children’s interests; what they can do and any difficulties they might have. Furthermore, listening to families and finding out what their children enjoy and like to do (or don’t), and any worries they might have, will help with planning relevant and stimulating play and learning experiences.

Other theoretical models also emphasise the importance of valuing children’s cultures. With its roots in Vygotsky’s social learning theory, ‘funds of knowledge’ (McDonald, 2018) is about recognising that a child does not arrive ‘empty’, but already knows many things when they start school. The role of the EY setting is to allow children to explore and build on these funds of knowledge. In a similar way, Thomson (2001) theorised about the idea of a ‘virtual schoolbag’ to describe how children start school with an invisible bag that is “full of things they may have already learnt at home, with their friends, and in and from the world in which they live”. The important question is whether children are invited to open this ‘virtual backpack’, and, if so, how their knowledge and experiences are respected and built on creatively within the school setting?

Some other practical ideas to help you to support and value children’s cultures

  • Plan flexible opportunities to get to know families, such as home visits, drop-off and pick-up times, early evening meetings, coffee mornings, stay and play etc. Families also need to get to know practitioners, in order to feel that their child/ren will feel safe, secure and happy.
  • Recognise the diversity of children’s home experiences, and avoid assumptions about different cultural backgrounds, customs and experiences.
  • The key person can do a great deal to support a child and family to feel welcome,  for instance: a warm smile on greeting; remembering important information, such as favourite foods or where items of spare clothing are; acting as ‘translator’ to help make sense of new systems, customs or routines; learning a few words of a child’s home language/s and including these into the day.
  • A poster can be a good way to share key words in home languages with other staff.
  • Understand that children will have varied ways of expressing their emotions and showing how they feel through different behaviour.
  • Find ways to utilise families’ knowledge and expertise. This might include creative skills, cooking or baking, joining-in with play activities to support home-languages etc. Many families will be able to contribute new learning and extend experiences through their work or job roles. 
  • Incorporate a variety of materials and artefacts in your setting that represent the different cultures and languages in your community, such as: dual-language books, signs and labels using home-languages or scripts, play materials or soft furnishings.
  • Provide a range of recorded music, instruments, and multi-lingual songs – families might like to share their child’s favourite songs or music.
  • Take advantage of family helpers for short trips or visits, and plan more ambitious outings further afield later in the school year.
  • Share the setting’s and practitioners’ own cultures, including the setting’s history (if relevant), and some of the skills and abilities of staff.
  • Plan an exhibition, either in the setting or in an accessible public building, to celebrate children’s art, stories, poems or other, creative work.
  • The neighbourhood will provide real and meaningful opportunities to deepen learning, and increase understanding of the cultural richness of the area in which children and families live. Many areas will have cultural heritage officers who are only too willing to support families, children and providers to take part in activities, events or visits. 

Providing a rich and varied curriculum that builds on children’s experiences and cultures

Children will benefit most from a flexible curriculum that builds on what they understand and know already. This will also include thinking about and planning for any particular special educational needs or disabilities. Being aware of what children might need, how you will provide this, and then assessing the impact will be essential. For example:

I knew that one of my key children had arrived with limited experience of outdoor play, so I thought it was very important to spend time with them in the garden, and encourage them to explore the area fully. I also made sure that they were able to participate in outdoor-focussed learning as much as possible. One afternoon we made kites, and this provoked lots of new vocabulary, as well as some wonderful interactions between the children. I could see that these experiences were having a very positive effect, and that A’s confidence, language and physical skills were thriving.”

As well as responding to children’s interests, new and inspiring experiences will be of great benefit – remember the phrase ‘awe and wonder’. It is clear that Ofsted will be looking at what settings do to build on children’s learning and understanding, through both adult-guided and child-initiated play:

‘Early years settings will also be evaluated on ‘cultural capital’, that is ‘how well leaders ensure that the curriculum they use or create enhances the experiences and opportunities available to children, particularly the most disadvantaged’ (Nursery World, January 2019)

Points that are worth considering:

  • Children’s experiences will be broadened through a wide range of opportunities.   
  • Encouraging and modelling language and vocabulary during play, will help to build confidence and fluency.
  • Pretend and dramatic play with open-ended materials, such as cardboard boxes, blocks or found objects, will nurture creativity and imagination, and foster children’s relationships and communication. 
  • Facilitating high-quality interactions will enable children to develop their language and ideas, to think critically, problem-solve and reflect (‘sustained, shared thinking’). For example, as well as positive comments that might be made about a child’s work, children could be asked to reflect on what they like, or why they chose particular materials, or how they might solve a problem or develop an idea further.  
  • Children will benefit from ‘in-depth’ learning experiences, i.e. time to become deeply involved and immersed in their activities, rather than just ‘skimming the surface’. Learning could be extended further with the addition of new resources or materials, or through a story, song, or information books linked to the child’s enquiry.
  • Short trips, visits or outings, i.e. to a nearby shop, park or city farm, will also help to deepen and enrich learning.   

Gradually widening children’s experiences as the year progresses will be an important step in providing rich and engaging learning across the curriculum.  Headteacher Julian Grenier explains his setting’s policy:

“In my current role, we plan carefully for children to have progressively richer experiences beyond the nursery school gate. We start with simple trips to the local park, shops and on buses – unfamiliar experiences for some children. As the year progresses, we visit different places of worship, the Olympic Park and the great museums in central London. Finally, there is our summer trip to the seaside. This had particular meaning for Ruby, a four-year-old who spent considerable periods of her time in nursery playing with baskets of shiny stones and shells, arranging them differently to create designs and pictures. She was first overwhelmed and then absolutely fascinated by all the stones she saw on the Essex shore. She spent almost a whole day holding them, stacking them up, throwing them into the sea and talking about them.”

(May 2019, Impact Magazine: What Happened to Curriculum in Early Years)

It will be up to settings to decide for themselves, within the EYFS framework, what their curriculum should include to best fulfil children’s needs and learning. How this is done, and how this is measured will again be up to individual settings. It may mean utilising additional funding, i.e. through the early years pupil premium to support particular groups.

Skilled and knowledgeable practitioners will be able to plan enticing opportunities to support and extend learning for all children. For example, providing a good range of quality story books (see further info) will support many different areas of learning, including language and literacy.  Reading together in small groups, drawing children’s attention to pictures and words, asking and inviting questions etc will expand on children’s thinking, their social skills and knowledge of books, vocabulary and ‘book language’. Learning might be deepened further by incorporating props, and exploring the story through role-play, drama or small-world. Songs, rhymes or music that link to the text might enhance learning still more, and an outing could be planned to hear the story at the local library, or to see it acted out at a community theatre.

A curriculum that is ambitious and aspirational for all will enhance the cultural capital of every child and family.

(all articles, journals and films accessed Sept 2019):

Chalmers, H and Crisfield, E (2019) Drawing on linguistic and cultural capital to create positive learning cultures for EAL learners

Education Inspection Framework 2019

Ofsted Schools Inspection Handbook Sept 2019

Ofsted Early Years Inspection Handbook Sept 2019

Ofsted Education Inspection Framework Webinar (June 2019)

Gaunt, C. (Jan 2019) Education inspection framework 2019: key changes for early years, Nursery World Magazine

Cowley, S. (May 2019) Defining ‘cultural capital’ in terms of best practice

Grenier, J., (May 2019) What Happened to Curriculum in Early Years?  Impact, Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching

McDonald, A. (Feb 2018) How to use Funds of Knowledge in your Classroom and Create Better Connections

Mickelburgh, J. (May 2019) The Theories behind Cultural Capital

Moylett, H. (March 2019) Ofsted’s thinking on Cultural Capital

Thomson, P. (2001) Schooling the Rustbelt Kids: Making the Difference in Changing Times

What happens on an early years inspection? A short YouTube video with Wendy Ratcliff, Her Majesty’s Inspector, Senior Manager, Early Years, who explains why you should not do something different in your setting, just because you think Ofsted might want to see it 

With thanks to Jo Metivier for professional feedback and critique.

Read more articles like this

For expert analysis of early childhood education issues, practice and pedagogy in our newsletters and Journal, become a member today.

Further reading

Reggio Emilia

Last updated Spring 2018. The preschools of the Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy inspire us with their pedagogy and practice in giving children rich encounters

Read More »

Friedrich Froebel

Who was Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) Born on 21 April 1782 Friedrich Froebel was a German educator who invented the kindergarten. He believed that “play is

Read More »

Overcoming barriers

An early task for the Exploring the Wider World project was to identify the barriers to taking children out and about beyond the setting. Only

Read More »

Taking risks

Risk is a natural part of our existence, as we look to explore and make sense of the world around us. What is key is

Read More »

Planning trips out

This page brings together all the key project elements of thinking through a trip or a visit in one handy place, with downloadable resources for

Read More »

Your resources

Meaningful learning opportunities relating to understanding the world rely on rich and stimulating resources. Consider what you have Rich and well thought out resources make

Read More »

Taking 4-year-olds out

Most 4-year-olds can walk faster and further than their younger counterparts. This means that they can venture further afield than the three year olds in

Read More »

Using social media

Social media is a powerful tool for sharing examples of good practice and celebrating achievements – but there potential pitfalls, particularly relating to consent. We

Read More »


Transition is part of the maturation process. Most children and their families find moving from one stage to the next seamless. Transitions need careful planning and will

Read More »

Become a member

For more articles and professional learning

Find out more

Browse Early Education publications