A Practical Guide To Ofsted And Cultural Capital For Primary Schools

Published 27 November 2019 by Kapow Primary

Wondering where to start with Ofsted’s definition of cultural capital? Here’s a digestible summary of what you need to know, plus some helpful and practical tips on where to start in helping develop your pupils’ cultural capital in primary schools. 

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

  • Where did cultural capital come from?
  • What’s Ofsted’s definition?
  • Schools of thought: what are people saying?
  • Approaches to developing cultural capital
  • Free Kapow Primary lessons to help you develop cultural capital in your school
  • Free cultural capital toolkit: staff powerpoint and templates


Where did cultural capital come from?

So where did the term cultural capital come from?

The original phrase came from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s, believing the more ‘capital’ you had, the more powerful your position was within society. This closely linked with Karl Marx’s theory on fiscal capital (and capitalism) – the more capital  you had, the better off you were. 

D. Hirsch, Jr., Chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation took this to another level by developing the idea of ‘cultural literacy’ – “the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge”. In 1986 he published ‘Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know which outlines all ‘core topics’ he believed American children needed to know to prepare them to be a successful adult.

This phrase hit the headlines again in 2013 when Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, gave a speech where he promised the curriculum would ensure pupils had a “stock of knowledge”. Taking inspiration from E.D. Hirsch Jr, he argued ‘cultural capital’ would impact children from low-income backgrounds the most as “the accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility”. This belief that cultural capital is ‘knowledge’ has been controversial amongst the teaching profession.


So what is Ofsted’s definition of cultural capital?

According to their school inspection handbook, Ofsted’s definition of cultural capital is:

As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Our understanding of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ is derived from the following wording in the national curriculum: ‘It is 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.’”


Schools of thought: what are people saying about it?

There have been mixed views on Ofsted’s mandatory introduction of ‘cultural capital’ into the curriculum.

The thought behind its introduction is to expose disadvantaged children to cultural experiences and background knowledge that will equip them with cultural knowledge to propel them further in their education, careers and social development. 

Some teachers at schools in more deprived areas believe this could have a positive impact on their pupils. Developing cultural capital within a school setting can give exposure to children to experiences that they may otherwise not have had. Alan Boyd, a teacher, says that he feels he is “providing opportunities and experiences that our parents can’t pass on to their children. Even simple things like going to a beach or farm that many children take for granted. Our school is in a deprived area so not many of the parents own cars. This stops them from having day trips and travelling away from their immediate area.”


Is Ofsted’s definition too vague?

The Cultural Learning Alliance has openly stated that the loose definition of ‘cultural capital’ by Ofsted allows schools to develop their own interpretation of what the phrase means in a way that is best for their school and pupils. They believe schools should define ‘cultural capital’ in a way to “celebrate and embrace the different backgrounds, heritage, language and traditions of all the children living in this country”.

Similarly, Teacher blogger Mrs Beaton argues, “Let’s shift our thinking from cultural transactions to cultural openness and acceptance. That my heritage might be different to yours but neither are ‘less than’ when the comparative financial cost is totted up and someone hands the school the receipt.”

Contributing to The Guardian newspaper, Professor Diane Reay emphasises this new requirement doesn’t just confuse what ‘culture’ to develop but also the issue of class: “key elements of cultural capital are entwined with privileged lifestyles rather than qualities you can separate off and then teach the poor and working classes.”




What does an Art subject specialist think?

Susan Coles is a Kapow Primary Art specialist. She is an educator, artist and an active and respected advocate of art in schools. Here’s what she thinks:

“It is something that should be applied to all curriculum subject areas and not particularly to the Arts. Although, the autonomy of the Art curriculum allows teachers much more freedom to lead on this. There is a lot of work that has been done previously in schools, under other government and OFSTED initiatives such as SMSC and Citizenship that has actually explored this. Schools do not necessarily have to ‘reinvent the wheel’.

Something that I believe is key to cultural capital is curiosity, which is, of course, a component also of creativity (see Hawking quote below). The urge, impulse, desire to find out more. Finding out more about ‘myself’, where I come from, where I belong, where I feel safe and confident and strong, how I manage my own well being and also ensure that I grow as a person. Cultural capital is absolutely everywhere in our world, in our own house, our street, our town/city, across the nation, across the globe. Learning through art is to be viewed as a productive practice of meaning-making within the life-worlds of students. Avoid tagging on cultures that have little or no relevance to the students in your schools. Embrace the different cultures within schools, in the surrounding communities. 

A school is not going to develop cultural capital through the Arts purely by, for example, taking people to an art show or to the theatre. It is the active participation in the arts that develops cultural capital. Through all the things that children love to do, we MUST ensure that young people don’t just experience the arts and culture but that they actively take part and create their own as participants. Children are unique human beings- they are not a piece of data- they should sing, they should dance, they should twist, they should turn, they should rock and roll, they should imagine, and then script their stories and act them out, they should use their hands to twist, to bend, to shape, to mould, to feel, to cut, to tear, to form, to join, to draw, to paint, to make, and they should explore and experience all those wonderful haptic moments which are essential to developing as a human being. Their confidence in doing this is part of their cultural capital.”




Approaches to developing cultural capital in primary schools

How do you introduce cultural capital in your school? We’ve put together some ideas that you can use to create your own interpretation – and without too much additional work. 


Approach the arts

One way to approach cultural capital, and perhaps the most obvious, is through the arts. This can be a mix of traditional and modern to expose children to a variety of cultures. Go to the list of Kapow Primary lessons on some Art ideas to introduce into your classroom. 


Lunch-time and after-school clubs

Lunch-time and after-school clubs are an opportunity for you to introduce a variety of activities to help develop your pupils’ cultural capital- hands on. Read these blog posts for some specific ideas for different subjects:

Primary school art club projects

Extra curricular computing club ideas

What to do in your after school primary language club


5 School trip ideas

According to a UK government report, children aged 8 to 15 enjoy entertainment and culture-related and sports activities the most out of all leisure activities. School trips can be a great way to ensure children can experience new things and spend time outdoors. School trips don’t have to break the bank either. Here are a few budget-friendly and free ideas: 

  • Local markets
  • Free museums 
  • Local historic sites 
  • Physical activities
  • Forest walks


Want some more ideas? Head to ‘Plan my school trip’ for engaging educational experiences around the UK and overseas. 


Children’s assembly challenge 

Why not use your assembly time to engage your children in a small challenge that will help develop their cultural capital? Try tasking each class to come up and perform their own play – each of them relating to a different culture around the world. 

You could try various themes like different religious festival or re-enacting traditional stories from different cultures around the world.


Inter-generational activities 

Cultural capital could also be interpreted as childrens’ exposure to people of all ages. Encouraging activities where children have to ask questions about their own families is an important way of handing down wisdom and knowledge. A great way to get pupils involved with local communities and to learn from a different generation is to visit a retirement home. Buddy up a care home resident with a child from your class and let them ask questions and engage with each other. They could even become pen pals!


Use your pupil premium 

Pupil premium was introduced in 2011 to support schools in encouraging social mobility. But, as schools can choose how to spend pupil premiums, why not use it to help develop cultural capital in your school? 

Theschoolrun.com give a number of suggestions on how to use pupil premium money, such as extra one-to-one support groups for children and employing extra teaching assistants. Here are some other more creative ways to use yours, whilst developing cultural capital:

  • Funding school trips and visits
  • Investing in technology to help children learn e.g. tablets
  • Funding Language classes
  • Providing Music lessons 
  • A nutritionist for children to learn about healthy eating
  • Take your class to the theatre


For more guidance on using your pupil premiums, click here


Kapow Primary lessons to help you teach cultural capital

Art: Clacton Pigeon Mural – Banksy

Looking past the seemingly discriminatory tone of Banksy’s Clacton Pigeon Mural, children consider what message he was really trying to convey and alter the image to reflect British Values. Go to this lesson >


Art: Exploring prehistoric art

Children are introduced to cave art and reflect upon the purpose of the drawings before working on developing their sense of proportion in drawing. Go to this lesson >


D&T: Food – Eating seasonally – Where in the world?

Children identify the different climates fruits and vegetables grow in and follow a recipe to make Japanese fruit skewers with plum sauce. Go to this lesson >


Music: Chinese new year – Pentatonic scale 

Learning that the pentatonic scale is a five-note scale, used in many cultures across the world, pupils use a tuned instrument to play the scale together as a class, before moving on to playing pentatonic melodies in pairs. Go to this lesson >


Music: Animals – Going on safari: 

After hearing the sounds of some of Africa’s most notorious animals, children use instruments to replicate the sounds, experimenting with the variations of timbre. Go to this lesson >


Want to help your colleagues understand cultural capital too?


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