Schools doing ‘cultural capital’: Bourdieu’s appropriation by Ofsted?

Success is subjective thing.

One person’s trash is another’s treasure; one man’s meat is another’s poison; to each their own etc. There is a plethora of sayings that essentially say that some stuff is better for one person that it might be for another and that we don’t all have to like, or be good at, the same thing. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. For the record, I realise my privilege and position as a Russell Group graduate with a PhD. For me those things are great and I am very lucky to be happy with my ‘lot’.

So why is success within schools modelled as a narrow pathway, populated with Etonian values and Russell Group degrees, progress 8 score through the roof and 99.9% of learners achieving all 9-grades? What about those that don’t want that? What about those for whom a different pathway, a different view of success and a different cultural capital are a better fit. 

Every individual has cultural capital. By definition, any group of people has a set of practices, behaviours and language that they embody, use and reproduce. To be human, within a group of other humans, means that we possess cultural capital. However, the cultural capital that is referred to by Ofsted predetermines success criteria and imposes Ofsted’s view of, “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”.

And Ofsted dominates English education.

A Bourdieusian view of the world is coming to light; dominant structures self-propagate. All the right noises are made about inclusion and diversity, but those in power only allow those who are the same as them access to power. Schools are giving their students opportunities and experiences outside of their comfort zones and that is a good thing. But schools operate in a system that is biased and broken. Cultural values outside of those embodied by Ofsted will not be acceptable, will not promote access to power-wielding structures within wider society and will not allow for difference. Schools and students who cannot access, embody and reproduce the cultural capital celebrated by Ofsted will be written off as failures and left to rot.

Ofsted’s cultural capital has access to power. Ofsted’s cultural capital runs the government. Ofsted’s cultural capital quite likes keeping itself where it is, thank you very much indeed. Real diversity is not celebrated; real social mobility is not facilitated. Instead promoting one, dominant flavour of cultural capital is instead what we are doing in our schools, exactly as Bourdieu saw it in 1977.

What a mess.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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