Ofsted’s thinking on Cultural Capital – some concerns and questions, by Helen Moylett

Raymond Williams maintained, after years of examining constructs of culture and society that  “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (1983: 87) So it is surprising that Ofsted has seen fit to insert the term “cultural capital” into the proposed Education Inspection Framework (EIF) without even a nod to its contested nature or complexity.

It appears in the following places.

Inspectors will make a judgement on the quality of education by evaluating the extent to which ..leaders adopt or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life

Draft EIF p10

Cultural capital

140. Inspectors will evaluate how well leaders ensure that the curriculum they use or create enhances the experiences and opportunities available to children, particularly the most disadvantaged. Some children arrive at an early years settings with poorer experiences than others, in their learning and play. What a setting does, through its curriculum and interactions with practitioners, potentially makes all the difference for children. 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.

Footnote: Ofsted’s definition of knowledge and cultural capital matches that found in the aims of the national curriculum. Cultural capital is the essential knowledge that children need to be educated citizens. 

Early Years Inspection handbook p16:

Cultural capital

163. As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Ofsted’s understanding of this knowledge and cultural capital matches that found in the aims of the national curriculum. It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

Schools inspection handbook p42:

It is interesting that the term always is always bracketed with “knowledge” and that may be because, despite Ofsted’s claim to be using a definition found in the national curriculum , the national curriculum (NC) does not refer explicitly to cultural capital. The relevant aim of the NC (as quoted directly in the schools inspection handbook above) is:

The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement..

So it seems that Ofsted have added to the NC aims by deciding that “the best that has been thought and said” plus “an appreciation of human creativity and achievement” equals cultural capital. Anyone who followed the debates about aspects of the 2014 NC such as slavery and English history or the accepted canon of English literature will anticipate potential difficulties here.

Amanda Spielman and HMIs at Ofsted are motivated by a desire to see more disadvantaged children succeeding and want to narrow the gap in educational performance etc. However, what concerns me is that such cavalier use of this term is likely to perpetuate deficit models of working class children (and many other children who are not white, British and middle class)

Bourdieu, the sociologist most closely associated with cultural capital theory and education maintained that we all have cultural capital. Are we/Ofsted careful enough in the school system to remember that cultural capital is a concept that includes all social, cultural and class groups ie we all have cultural capital; all forms of it are valid, but they are not valued equally by society’s institutions including the education system and this has economic and political consequences for children and families?

Instead of blaming working class underachievement on inferior working-class culture, cultural capital theory focuses on the dominance of middle class culture. Cultural capital theory would say that school is somewhere where working class children are taught to be more middle class – thus by default working class culture is devalued and working class children do not feel as ‘at home’ in school and are more likely to struggle in education as a result. (In early years Tizard and Hughes’ 1980s research with working class mothers and children is an example of this alienation in action in the nursery. The current attempt to introduce reception baseline could well be another)

So we need to be very wary in the context of current education policies – de-regulation, marketisation/academisation (and free schools) Middle class parents and schools can use this so called ‘freedom from regulation’ to exclude those who do not conform. Where is equality of opportunity or social justice here? The huge increase in off-rolling is an example of this unjust exclusionary behaviour – decried by Ofsted, but something that could be seen as an inevitable  consequence of the accountability agenda, itself an expression of neo-liberalist competitive ideals.

Ofsted is also not explicit about the influence that ED Hirsch’s ideas about the knowledge based curriculum and the learning of facts have had on government policy and the national curriculum. Nonetheless their influence can be clearly seen in the new EIF. This matters because, as Watson (2018) points out, the Hirschian neo-traditionalist approach is “reductive, parochial and inherently culturally biased toward a white Establishment canon of literature and history.”

Some obvious questions which Ofsted HMIs do not appear to be asking themselves or any of us..

  • Do you agree with this new definition of cultural capital?
  • Who decides what is the best that has been thought and said?
  • Does appreciating human thought and creativity start with appreciating your own critical and creative thinking and making?
  • Do we want everyone to be middle class – is that the mission of education or do we want to make schools more inclusive ?
  • To be inclusive should we much more explicit about the differences and richness that children bring rather than casting some of them as disadvantaged? As the New Zealand early years curriculum framework acknowledges, “I come not with my own strengths but bring with me the gifts, talents and strengths of my family, tribe and ancestors”. (Te Whariki:12).
  • Social and economic capital goes hand in hand with cultural – how does that work in the current climate of austerity?

As Elliott Major (2015) writing for the Sutton Trust says “Widening wealth gaps have created a privileged class hell-bent on preserving that privilege for their offspring and armed with ever more resources to enrich their children educationally. At the same time ‘working class’ kids have been stripped of the traditional places where they once developed cultural capital: the youth club, town hall, local library, or children’s centre.” He goes on to say “Given this, the role of schools as places of cultural and social as well as academic learning has become even more critical.”

On page p75 of the proposed Schools Inspection Handbook the outstanding grade descriptor includes, “The curriculum provides no limits or barriers to the children’s achievements, regardless of their backgrounds, circumstances or needs. The high ambition it embodies is shared by all staff.”

This is an admirable ideal and one that I am sure is shared by most people but we have to do some better thinking than this and have a proper debate about that curriculum or it will so easily build barriers to achievement rather than accept and build on the huge drive that all young children have to learn in their own ways. As the EYFS principle states, “Every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.”

I have focused on cultural capital here but of course it is part of the whole new EIF package. A package which does not highlight the principles of the EYFS or the characteristics of effective learning;  which selectively mentions some aspects of the curriculum and pedagogic practices and not others, thus risking promoting certain practices and discouraging others which are at least equally important.

Ofsted would not wish to exclude children and families from culture or anything else that we share as human beings but to use the term cultural capital without thinking about the broader context is disingenuous. For instance, research over the years has found that ability grouping has negative effects on children’s attainment and confidence as learners. The 2017 NEU/UCL report on grouping in the early years and key stage 1 found that grouping was widespread. Two of their recommendations were :

  • Teachers should feel justified in questioning what they see as the damaging emotional and academic impact of grouping for young children, given the wide research to this effect. 
  • Policy makers should make the Phonics Screening Check non-statutory, because of the impact on grouping practices which, from age three, can have detrimental effects upon children’s wellbeing, particularly those children who are labelled as ‘failures’ at age six if they do not pass the Phonics Check.

We also know students who spend longer in mixed-ability classes are more likely to share basic values in areas such as tolerance and patriotism, regardless of their social or ethnic group (Janmaat & Mons 2011). So how does this knowledge sit with Ofsted’s advocacy of systematic synthetic phonics in the EIF given its commitment to moving away from data and removing barriers and limits? I suspect an Ofsted answer would be to do with the power of reading and yet we have no evidence that the phonics check increases children’s reading comprehension or pleasure. And we need more than the usual Ofsted answers if we are to have a curriculum debate that is fit for purpose rather than an imposed inspection framework that is not. Culture and cultural capital are complex issues and should be part of a debate on the purposes of education and the ways in which we can best support all children (and their families) to learn and feel valued in schools and early years settings.

As Apple warned in 1990:

A nation is not a firm. A school is not part of that firm efficiently churning out the ‘human capital’ required to run it. We do damage to our very sense of the common good to even think of the human drama of education in these terms. It is demeaning to teachers and creates a schooling process that remains unconnected to the lives of so many children.

In our early years history and research we have a rich cultural resource which deserves to be cited and called on. It seems on reading both the published text of the new EIF and its research review and watching the accompanying videos and slideshows as well as reading between the lines, that it is overly influenced by those who believe that making young children engage in formal learning earlier and earlier will somehow make them better learners rather than disenfranchise and disconnect them from the world of ideas, creativity and cultures.


Apple. M. (1990). Ideology and Curriculum.

Bourdieu, P.  (1985), “The Forms of Capital” in Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education (1986)

Bradbury, A. and Roberts-Holmes, G. (2017). Grouping in Early Years and Key Stage 1 ‘A Necessary Evil’?  Report for National Education Union.

Elliott Major, L. (2015). Creating Cultural Capital 

Hirsch, E.D. (1988). Cultural Literacy : What Every American Needs to Know.

Janmaat, J.G. & Mons, N. (2011). ‘Promoting Ethnic Tolerance and Patriotism: The Role of Education System Characteristics,’ Comparative Education Review, 55, 1, pp. 56-81.

Tizard, B. & Hughes, M. (2003). (2nd ed). Young Children Learning (Understanding Children’s Worlds).

Watson, S. (2018). “Educating the Working Class” in I.Gilbert The Working Class, poverty, education and alternative voices.

Williams, R. (1983). Keywords, A vocabulary of culture and society.