Image of Explaining Ofsted's Definition of ‘Cultural Capital’: A Comprehensive Guide

Explaining Ofsted's Definition of ‘Cultural Capital’: A Comprehensive Guide

In this blog, John Rees, teacher, trainer and consultant with more than 25 years’ educational leadership experience, explores the concept of cultural capital, provides insight into Ofsted’s assessment of cultural capital, and explains how it can enrich education and enhance outcomes for your school or education setting. 

In 1973, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu first described the concept of a person possessing “capital”, and in ‘Cultural Literacy’, ED Hirsch suggested that “to be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world”. 

What is cultural capital according to Ofsted? 

Ofsted added the term 'cultural capital' to its ’School inspection handbook’ in 2019, which describes “... 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.” 

In 2019, former HMCI Amanda Spielman explained that in practice, “… we simply mean the essential knowledge, those standard reference points, that we want all children to have. So, for example, it’s about being able to learn about and name things that are for many outside their daily experience”. 

Why does Ofsted value cultural capital? 

One of education's aspirations is to reduce and eventually eradicate inequalities. Understanding and valuing cultural capital is essential for creating inclusive and equitable educational environments. This is important to enable children and young people, as well as the adults who work with and for them, to flourish, and improve outcomes for all. 

Schools in England are increasingly recognising the importance of acknowledging pupils' diverse cultural backgrounds to enhance learning experiences. By incorporating a range of cultural perspectives, practices, and resources into the curriculum, educators can help pupils feel more engaged, valued, and represented. 

It’s a huge job, but without the guidance of their teachers, some young people have very little cultural and social input from elsewhere, perhaps other than from social media, and therefore, may miss opportunities and make decisions that are less informed than they could be. Now more than ever, the classroom teacher's job is important in filling the gaps that pupils have. This includes exposure to a wide range of cultural experiences, such as the arts, music, literature, and history. 

Improving a pupil’s cultural capital is not, however, just a matter of giving them a book or sending them to see a play. We must ensure that, along with teaching the knowledge content of the curriculum, we enable pupils to function as well-informed individuals now and after they leave school. 

This is particularly important when we think about pupils’ next steps in education, especially in careers-related learning. The charity ‘Education & Employers’ provides state-funded schools with free access to industry volunteers to enhance the curriculum using the phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’—which also resonates with the notion of developing cultural capital. 

How does Ofsted assess cultural capital? 

The most recent ’School inspection handbook’ (updated in April 2024) judges schools on the extent to which the school’s curriculum and the extent to which all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils, including those with SEND, acquire the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. It also seeks to judge whether leaders are suitably ambitious for all children and consider their cultural capital when preparing them for the next stage in their education. 

In recent years, Ofsted has placed an increasing emphasis on the concept of cultural capital and its inclusion in school inspections. Here are some of the key points about Ofsted's focus on cultural capital: 

  • The importance of cultural capital in shaping pupils' educational experiences and outcomes should be recognised. Cultural capital encompasses the knowledge, skills, and experiences that individuals acquire through their cultural background and upbringing. 
  • Inspectors now consider how schools promote cultural capital and provide pupils with a broad and balanced curriculum that reflects diverse cultural perspectives. Schools are expected to demonstrate how they enrich pupils' cultural awareness and understanding. 
  • This emphasis on cultural capital is closely tied to promoting equity and inclusion in schools. By valuing and incorporating pupils' diverse cultural backgrounds into the curriculum, schools can create a more inclusive learning environment that celebrates diversity. 
  • Ofsted now expects schools to design their curriculums to expose pupils to a wide range of cultural experiences, including literature, arts, history, and traditions from different backgrounds. This broad curriculum helps pupils develop a deeper understanding of the world around them. 
  • Schools that effectively integrate cultural capital into their educational practices are likely to receive positive feedback during Ofsted inspections. Demonstrating a commitment to promoting cultural awareness and understanding can contribute to a school's overall rating and reputation. 

Ofsted’s assessment of cultural capital is part of the evaluation of a school's curriculum, ethos, and overall effectiveness in providing a well-rounded education to pupils, and covers the following areas: 

  • Curriculum design: How schools design their curriculum to ensure that it provides pupils with a broad and balanced range of cultural experiences and knowledge. This includes assessing whether the curriculum reflects the diversity of cultures, histories, and traditions within society. 
  • Teaching and learning: Evaluating how teachers incorporate cultural capital into their teaching. This involves looking at how teachers use diverse cultural references, resources, and activities to enrich pupils' learning experiences and promote cultural awareness. 
  • Enrichment activities: Ofsted examines the opportunities schools provide for pupils to engage in enrichment activities that contribute to their cultural capital. This includes assessing extracurricular programmes, cultural visits, partnerships with cultural organisations, and initiatives that broaden pupils' cultural horizons. 
  • Inclusivity and diversity: How schools promote inclusivity and celebrate diversity through their approach to cultural capital. Schools that actively embrace and value diverse cultural backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences are recognised for their efforts in enhancing pupils' cultural awareness and understanding. 

By assessing these aspects of cultural capital, Ofsted apparently aims to evaluate how well schools are equipping pupils with the cultural experiences and knowledge they need to succeed academically, socially, and personally. Schools that effectively integrate cultural capital into their educational practices are better positioned to provide a comprehensive and enriching learning environment for all pupils. 

This emphasis also aims to promote equality and inclusion by ensuring that all pupils have access to a rich and diverse cultural education, which aims to reduce educational inequalities and provide every pupil with the opportunity to thrive. Cultural capital is also seen as essential for the holistic development of children and young people. Exposing them to a wide range of cultural experiences and knowledge not only enhances academic learning but also nurtures their social, emotional, and cultural awareness. 

Collectively, these experiences should equip pupils with a broad understanding of different cultures, histories, and traditions to help them navigate a diverse and interconnected world with increasing confidence and empathy. By enriching the learning experiences for pupils and making education more engaging and relevant, schools need to create a curriculum that reflects the diversity of society and provides pupils with a well-rounded education. 

Implementing cultural capital in schools 

This has implications for schools in terms of curriculum design and ensuring that we incorporate cultural content across all subjects to enhance pupil understanding. Schools should also be encouraged to engage with the local community and wider society to provide pupils with opportunities to develop their cultural awareness and understanding. This approach helps pupils to develop a broader perspective of the world and prepares them to navigate diverse social and cultural contexts. 

An important component of this involves community partnerships - collaborating with local cultural institutions, museums, libraries, and community organisations to offer pupils opportunities for cultural enrichment through field trips, workshops, and guest speakers. Engaging with cultural groups and practitioners also provides pupils with first-hand experiences of different cultural practices, languages, and traditions. Establishing partnerships with diverse communities creates a more inclusive and culturally responsive learning environment that reflects the richness of the local area. 

These sorts of inclusive practices also involve implementing teaching strategies that value and respect pupils’ diverse cultural backgrounds, experiences, and identities. They involve encouraging open discussions and dialogues on cultural topics to promote understanding, empathy, and mutual respect among pupils from different backgrounds. 

To support this, it’s essential to create a welcoming and supportive environment where pupils feel empowered to share their cultural heritage and learn from each other’s perspectives. The social assets, knowledge, and experiences that individuals acquire through their cultural background and upbringing play a crucial role in shaping pupils' opportunities, achievements, and social mobility. 

So, what’s not to like? The consensus clearly is that promoting the cultural capital of children and young people is a good thing, but we must not ignore staff. Teaching becomes increasingly hard work in a curriculum that can feel arid or of little relevance to some of our pupils. Disruptive behaviour, poor mental health and worrying levels of non-attendance all take their toll on teaching and other staff. Although we need to be mindful of teacher workload, finding ways to enrich the curriculum with a focus on cultural capital might be one way of addressing some of the challenges our young people face, whilst helping teachers work in a more stimulating, creative environment where they feel relevant, recognised and celebrated. 

Summary and key takeaways 

It now seems widely accepted that a person’s level of cultural capital is a huge indicator of how well they can succeed academically and engage in wider society. Cultural capital is part of a much bigger picture that we must understand if we are to provide pupils with a varied and broad curriculum that prepares them for the challenges and opportunities of life. 

Addressing cultural capital disparities can help bridge the achievement gap among pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds. By providing all pupils with equal access to cultural resources, exposure to diverse experiences, and opportunities to develop their cultural awareness, schools can promote social inclusion and academic success for all learners and support the wellbeing of staff. As we continue to struggle with national recruitment, and finding and keeping good staff, our most valuable and expensive assets is of paramount importance. Encouraging and enabling them to develop pupils’ cultural capital can also create a more exciting, vibrant, and stimulating place to work. 

Browse resources on The National College platform which can help your school or setting incorporate cultural capital into a broad and balanced curriculum. 

If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.