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Cultural capital and curriculum: will OFSTED’s new framework encourage better education in our schools?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 September 2019

Michael Young.

OFSTED’s decision to revise their Inspection Framework to give less emphasis to pupil outcomes and more to the curriculum and ‘the substance of education’ was largely welcomed by the teaching profession. However, implementing such a change was always bound to be both difficult and controversial. As Warwick Mansell points out in The Guardian this week the welcome was not universal, and some academics and teachers attacked the change as ‘elitist’.

The key paragraph in the new OFSTED Inspection Handbook which Mansell concentrates on states that:

no institution can be rated “good” unless its curriculum gives “all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils … the essential knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.

The questions I want to consider are: why do they include the term cultural capital and will this guidance make it easier for inspectors to identify schools which ensure all their pupils have access to what they refer to as essential knowledge?

The references to cultural capital in speeches and interviews by Michael Gove when he was  Secretary of State for Education, and Nick Gibb, the current Minister for School Standards suggest that in a potentially controversial area, OFSTED wanted to be consistent with Government policy while at the same time introducing a change of emphasis  in the role of inspections.

The problem, as other academics quoted in The Guardian agree, is that neither the Government nor OFSTED appear to understand the meaning of the term ‘cultural capital’, a concept introduced in the 1970s by the French Sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu.

For Bourdieu, cultural capital was not a description of what the curriculum should offer,  but an explanation of the persistence of social inequalities. Though it included the school curriculum, it referred more widely to the society in which schools are located and what pupils bring to school as much as what they can acquire at school. On their  own, changes in the curriculum will not  reduce inequalities and if they are expected to do so, some teachers could be discouraged to the point of leaving the profession. Basil Bernstein, the English sociologist, summed up Bourdieu’s point well in the title of his 1970 article ‘Education cannot compensate for society’. However neither he nor Bourdieu concluded, as some have claimed, that therefore, the curriculum and what went on in schools did not matter. 

Mansell argues that both Gibb and Gove saw similarities between Bourdieu’s cultural capital and the American ED Hirsch’s cultural literacy. While both are far more accurate in their depiction of Hirsch than of Bourdieu, the former’s focus on improving the knowledge content of the curriculum, a policy that is at least superficially easier to implement, can lead on its own, to an over-emphasis on memorisation.

Any learning involves some memorisation. However it is whether what is memorised is understood by the students that matters, that inspectors need to search for in what the students say and write, and that OFSTED needs to ensure that its new framework will encourage and document. This is likely to depend on the professional development of inspectors as much as changes in the Framework.

Michael Young is Professor of Sociology of Curriculum in the Department of Education, Practice and Society

Photo by Paul McCoubrie via Creative Commons

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One Response to “Cultural capital and curriculum: will OFSTED’s new framework encourage better education in our schools?”

  • 1
    BH wrote on 10 October 2019:

    Perhaps, it is over-indulgent in relation to our OFSTED inspectors and their overlords in the department and in government, to suggest that their new framework for inspection, that naively conflates the concepts of “cultural literacy” and “cultural capital”, can be mitigated by further “professional development for inspectors”. Surely it must be time for them to go, before they cause even more harm?