Since the revised Education Inspection Framework was first published, the words ‘cultural capital’ have become the new buzz words in education and within early childhood, but what do they really mean and do we need to do anything differently within our settings? In this article, I argue that, although they may not have used the phrase, the most effective settings already take cultural capital into account instinctively by trying to address any inequalities within their provision, so that children are not limited by their social or economic circumstances.
According to Ofsted, “Cultural capital is the essential knowledge that children need to prepare them for their future success.” This is about taking into account that children will arrive in our settings with differing amounts of experience and trying to make life a little more of an even playing field for all children. In my view, effective practitioners already do this. They start with the child and ascertain what they already know and can do before planning next steps. This elicitation is vital and can happen formally, through gathering information from parents and carers and talking to the children, and, informally, through observation and listening to the child.
The term cultural capital is not a new phrase, it was coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who described economic and cultural capital as something that is built up over time and can be used, almost in a bargaining way, in order to enhance life. Different social groups accumulate differing amounts of capital and may be advantaged or disadvantaged in life due to this. His ideas are tied up in class and social standing and it has been argued that using the term cultural capital within education is a backward step which highlights differences and encourages stereotypes rather than breaks down these boundaries. When thinking about cultural capital, we could make an assumption that a family who live in a high-rise block do not have access to outdoor play, whilst in reality, they may be a very ‘outdoorsy’ family who spend most days in the city parks and green spaces and play outdoors far more than the child in our class who has a large garden at home.
This was highlighted to me clearly shortly after my first child was born. I had attended some antenatal classes and made friends with a couple of mums-to-be, like myself. When our children were about a month old, I went for a pram walk in the park with one of these new friends. She was an Oxford graduate and had a very wide vocabulary, sometimes making me feel inadequate in my use of language, but while we were walking, I was chatting non-stop to my new baby Pippa about everything. “Can you hear the birds singing?” or “Brrr, it’s getting a bit cold now, mummy’s going to tuck your blanket in a bit more.” My friend noticed this and said, “You talk to Pippa an awful lot, perhaps I should start talking to Dan.” She shared that she felt silly talking to a baby who, in her opinion, couldn’t respond. In discussion, I helped her to see that he was indeed very responsive to her, through the subtle differences in Dan’s expression, in how he held her gaze and kicked his legs when she talked directly to him and I helped her to understand that it was really important to talk to him as much as she could.
In relation to cultural capital, I would have assumed that this little baby Dan was very advantaged and had access to a wide vocabulary, however, this was not the case. So, we cannot make assumptions about what children know or their past experiences, but we can start with the individual child. We talk to them and their family and gather information as a starting point. We then use this knowledge and take it into account when we plan effectively for our future provision.
The idea of cultural capital is tied up with the government’s social mobility commitment, which aims to reduce social inequalities and increase the life chances of the most disadvantaged children within society. So, take for example, language. A US research study found that by the age of 3, children from poorer backgrounds have heard 30 million fewer words than those from more affluent backgrounds. The Oxford Language Report found that a word gap also exists within the UK – with on average, 49% of year-one-children lacking the vocabulary that they need to access the curriculum so that it negatively affects their learning. So we know that a child’s early years make a difference to their future life chances and thinking about cultural capital addresses the fairness of these different starting points and attempts to reduce any inequalities.
Cultural capital is about widening children’s experiences and offering them opportunities that they would not have if they were not attending our setting. This is nothing new, we are always using the EYFS curriculum to enhance and extend opportunities available for children, for example, encouraging them to experience the awe and wonder of the natural world in which we live. We also tend to try and help to motivate and interest children by starting with real-life, first-hand activities and experiences. For example, we might take the children to the library or walk them to the post office to post a letter or allow them to climb a tree in the park. So this is not necessarily about doing anything differently or in addition to what we already do, it is more about acknowledging what we currently do in the light of cultural capital.
So what does this look like in practice? One nursery identified that several of their children were wondering about the origins of their food and drink. So they made apple juice with the children - first they chopped the apples, then they mashed them, next they squeezed the apples and finally they drank the juice. Another setting regularly introduced children to different music genres, from classical to rap, widening their appreciation of music. This is already what effective practitioners do by listening to the children, widening their experiences and following up on their interests, curiosities and fascinations.
However, in my view, what really makes the difference for children in the long term is encouraging them to develop the dispositions and attitudes that enable them to learn effectively. If all children have the opportunity to become good at learning, this will prepare them for the future success that Ofsted refer to in their definition of cultural capital. Within the EYFS, we refer to the characteristics of effective learning as how young children learn and, in my book, School Readiness and The Characteristics Of Effective Learning, I argue that these dispositions support children to be life-ready. They learn how to persevere if things do not go their way and how to be resilient if they ever receive a knockback. They learn how to turn conflicts into problems to solve and how to notice patterns and links in their learning. For me, this also resonates with encouraging a growth mindset – the belief that we can achieve anything we set our minds to if we put in enough effort, learning and time.
It is important not to view cultural capital as a deficit model where we are constantly looking for gaps in children’s lives as this forgets that children already arrive in our settings as competent, confident people with a wealth of experiences. Instead, we need to start with each child, tap into their interests and build upon their knowledge and skills, introducing them to aspects of our wonderful world that are new to them or they have yet to experience. ‘Yet’ is a great word and should always be part of our vocabulary – when I was a child, if I ever stated, “I can’t!” my father replied, “There’s no such word as can’t!” At the time, I didn’t know it, but this fostered in me a growth mindset, that I might not be able to do it yet, but if I work hard, learn well and put in enough effort, I can do it.
We want to cultivate a love of learning in our children and for them to believe in themselves, believe that they are competent and believe that nothing can stop them, and in this so-called “snowflake generation”, it is more important than ever to teach them how to be resilient, persevere and take risks. This is about empowering and enabling children to learn and achieve whatever their circumstances. This is already what we do. This is cultural capital.
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.