Ut Vitam Habeant
So that they may have life
This is the motto of the University of Leicester (my alma mater) and it really chimes a chord with me. Not because it formed part of my life for 4 years, but because of its meaning to me., it really did give me life. As a child of a very working class family, growing up ‘on the wrong side of the tracks‘, with all the ACEs you could throw a stick at , going to university was probably not pre-destined for me. And this is a widespread tale for many. First in the family to go to university, against all odds (cue Phil Collins as my theme tune).
But it’s not as simple as going to university, you have to fit in. And I just didn’t.
Now, full exposure, I did my first degree at Aston University in Birmingham, (its motto is simply – Forward, apt really, because that’s what it did for me, propel me forward). And this is where the story starts. Indulge me if you will: I met my best friend there, from exactly the same background as me. We socialised together and had a great time. No one in our circle was playing polo or eating avocado. So, I never recognised a difference between me and the others. That was until the post-grad bubble was well and truly burst, and I realised the importance of cultural capital and the great divide it creates in society.
I’m not writing this blog this from my ivory tower of a success story, right from the screens of Dangerous Minds, or as if cultural capital is only important to fit in at university (although, I reckon that has some value). But, from the perspective of choice.
I have had many discussions with people about the concept of class. Now, my go to is that I don’t feel class is relevant to me, but I suspect that comes from a place of ignorance and naivety, rather than being truly informed, but I am rolling with it until I develop my ideas. But, why do I bring up class when looking at cultural capital? I’m glad you asked….
Here my friends, I present our educational elite, those who are being exposed to a knowledge and culturally rich curriculum, as well as having a background full of connections, experiences and expectations.
So, it leaves us with this:
Why do we find ourselves in this situation, where we have an uneven distribution of of occupations, when we are living in a time of compulsory education for all?
This is why:
Those from the middle classes and above have:
- Social codes, ways of behaving
- Specific gestures
- Ways of dressing
- They are part of a club
Very little of which is taught in a regular education, but developed through a lifetime of experiences and exposure to the wider world, which our disadvantaged typically do not get.
Now, to clarify, I am not saying everyone should enter an elite occupation, or that an elite occupation is in anyway ‘better’ than any other occupation (fyi: teaching isn’t an elite occupation!) but, our young people should at least have a choice whether it is for them. Not to be chained by the shackles of their early life.
Cultural capital, the new buzz phrase we are seeing everywhere, from Ofsted framework, School Improvement Plans, curriculum documents and in every teacher discussion from now until forever.
In its rawest form cultural capital is the social assets of a person (education, intellect, style of speech, style of dress, etc.) that promote social mobility in a stratified society, according Bourdieu.
This has clearly been addressed by our inspectorate:
“A double unfairness is created when schools in disadvantaged areas feel
pressure to narrow their curriculums in order to focus on headline results. So
many disadvantaged pupils may not have access to cultural capital, both in the
home and then in their school. Phase 3 of our research showed that we are
better able to judge schools in disadvantaged areas on a level playing field if
we assess the curriculum rather than just assessing test or examination results.”
“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”
I do not condone doing things for Ofsted, they really should be the servants of our children, not the masters of their fate. However, if their highlighting of the issue of cultural capital and its importance in leading in a successful life leads to greater educational exposure to all of things that make human culture so wonderful (art, music, sports, the list goes on) then I am all for it. As, I suspect, are most teachers. Particularly those serving the most disadvantaged, where that gap is the most explicit.
However, we really should be cautious of this ‘it’ thing in education. We have had so many flavours of the month, which are exactly that, and which the best bets?
Or, if it’s so great, how are we going to implement it to its full potential?
I expect many schools have jumped on the cultural capital band wagon, fantastic, hurrah. But is it though? It might be for some, but are they doing it justice? Or are they ticking a box ‘for Ofsted’?
Is everyone participating?
So, my question would be, if you are ‘doing’ cultural capital at your school, are you really doing it?
Those who are less exposed to cultural capital are less likely to see its benefit, therefore, less likely to opt in. So, you set up a well intentioned initiative, with lots of opportunities to be become culturally capital-ed but, those who you want most to experience it, don’t. So not only are they not gaining experiences, thus widening the gap between them and their less disadvantaged peers, you are also teaching them that opting out is an option. So, they become an ‘opt-outer’. Habit set, from early on. In this instance, the double negative does not become a positive, it’s just doubly negative.
So, that brings me to this. If you are truly ‘doing’ cultural capital, it needs to be fully embedded in your day to day curriculum. Everyone should be exposed to it. That is the only truly equitable way to approach this, and potentially, the only way we can begin to close the cultural gap. But, my goodness, it would be worth it.